A case for the defence ahead of Besiktas battle
Arsene Wenger has no qualms about admitting the importance of the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas. He spoke of being "desperate" to go through; knowing that failure at this stage would be a huge blow to Arsenal's campaign.
It's simple, really. The best players want to play in the best competitions. The likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are used to sitting at Europe's top table. Missing out on the Champions League proper would cast a shadow over the entire season. Arsenal's summer has been characterised by an optimistic mood around the camp and that's something they cannot afford to lose.
It won't be an easy task. Although they travel to Turkey with three Premier League points in the bag, the performance against Crystal Palace was hardly convincing. Arsenal are suffering from a compressed preseason, with many of their players facing only a handful of friendlies following the World Cup. They looked leggy against Palace and their touch was heavy. Facing a team of Besiktas' quality in this condition will be a significant test.
Elsewhere, there are other concerns with the club approaching something of a defensive crisis. Their need for a new centre-half has been clear all summer and selling Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona simply exacerbated that need. The urgency has been increased by Laurent Koscielny's persistent Achilles' tendon problem. Calum Chambers is theoretically the club's only fit senior centre-half -- and he's not even really a centre-half, let alone senior.
Nacho Monreal has been used as a makeshift centre-back during preseason but his services may be required at left-back with Kieran Gibbs the victim of another poorly timed injury.
Wenger has admitted he will take Per Mertesacker to Turkey to plug the gap if necessary. That's not ideal; the Arsenal boss is famously loathe to rush players back after their summer exertions. However, Mertesacker is a supremely fit individual who works hard on his conditioning even during the summer break. He ought to be ready to step in to the breach.
Mertesacker will have to be alert to deal with former Chelsea striker Demba Ba, who managed to notch a hat-trick in the previous round of the competition. Ba has a decent record against Arsenal and possesses a dangerous combination of power and intelligence. For a rusty Mertesacker and a raw Chambers, Ba is sure to provide quite the challenge.
Further up field, Wenger is likely to restore Olivier Giroud to his starting line-up. Yaya Sanogo was handed the opportunity to start the Premier League's opening fixture but failed to convince as the team's focal point. As soon as Giroud was introduced, Arsenal immediately looked more dangerous. His touch, movement and shooting all had significantly more purpose. If the elder Frenchman is fit enough to start, he'll surely get the nod.
It's clear that Arsenal have a stronger squad than Besiktas but at this early stage of the season, they might not have a fitter squad. Concentration will be key. At the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal should have enough to get the job done. The first task is to return from Turkey having ensured the tie is still finely poised. A defeat by two goals or more could give the Gunners an enormous mountain to climb.
With that in mind, they are likely to play a patient game. At this stage last season, they went to Turkey and won 3-0 against Fenerbahce but that kind of comfortable scoreline is unlikely to be replicated this season. Arsenal look too ragged.
After the Palace match Wenger, in that own unique way of his, made the customary comment that his team "lacked a little bit sharpness."
If the Gunners are still blunt they can at least play safe. If you're not sharp enough to win the game, make sure you don't lose it. The onus is on Mertesacker and company to keep Besiktas at bay.