Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Questions for Arsene Wenger ahead of Arsenal's trip to Chelsea
Last Updated: 04/02/17 8:41am
Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Watford on Tuesday night left Arsene Wenger with plenty of questions to answer ahead of Saturday's clash with Premier League leaders Chelsea.
The Gunners paid the price for conceding two early goals in three minutes at the Emirates Stadium, as they failed to add to Alex Iwobi's strike after the break.
So what's behind their slow starts? And is it time to revert to Alexis Sanchez up front? Ahead of what looks like a must-win trip to Stamford Bridge, there are plenty of issues to address.
What's with the slow starts?
Arsenal have developed a worrying habit of starting games slowly. Their trip to Bournemouth at the start of January - when they fell three goals behind before battling back to claim a point - was a glaring example, but they also strarted sluggishly in recent games against Burnley, Preston and West Brom.
Against Watford, their luck ran out. The Gunners were desperately off the pace from the start. They couldn't cope with the visitors' aggressive pressing tactics, and while there was a hint of ill fortune about Younes Kaboul's deflected opener, the second goal was a catalogue of errors.
Aaron Ramsey failed to control Gabriel Paulista's wayward throw, Francis Coquelin and Shkodran Mustafi were easily beaten by Etienne Capoue, and Nacho Monreal was nowhere near Deeney for the rebound. The succession of mistakes highlighted Arsenal's collective complacency - as did the misplaced passes and over-hit crosses at the other end.
The Gunners looked a different side when they peppered Watford's goal after the break, but they had given themselves too much to do. "We missed our first half," Wenger told Sky Sports afterwards. "On the mental front, we were not ready for the challenges. We were dominated in too many duels and we paid for it."
They can ill-afford another slow start against Chelsea, but recent trips to west London do not inspire confidence. Arsenal have been trailing at half-time in three of their last four games at Stamford Bridge. Wenger must buck the trend if their title challenge is to last beyond the weekend.
What now for the midfield?
Central midfield has been a problem position for Wenger all season - and the situation looks more troubling than ever now. Santi Cazorla is still sidelined, Granit Xhaka is suspended again, Mohamed Elneny sustained an injury on Africa Cup of Nations duty, and Aaron Ramsey is also a doubt having hobbled off with a calf problem against Watford.
It leaves Wenger with just one natural central midfielder in Coquelin. The Frenchman has started more games than any of his counterparts this season, but he struggled as badly as anyone in that first-half against Watford - and it was not the first time.
In fact, the Gunners have only won nine of the 20 games in which he has started this season, giving them a win percentage of just 45 per cent with him in the team. Remarkably, however, they have won all 13 of the games in which he has not been named in the starting line-up.
Arsenal with and without Francis Coquelin - 2016/17
It's an alarming trend, but Wenger has few other options against Chelsea. Coquelin is likely to be partnered by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The England international impressed in the position in last week's FA Cup thrashing of a second-string Southampton side, but can he replicate that performance against N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic?
Is it time to revert to Sanchez up front?
After back-to-back defeats to Everton and Manchester City before Christmas, Wenger decided to re-jig his attack. In came Olivier Giroud up front having spent the first half of the season on the sidelines, with Alexis Sanchez moving over to the left flank.
With four goals and two assists in six consecutive Premier League starts since then, it is difficult to reproach Giroud. But it is also worth noting that his late strikes against West Brom and Bournemouth were when Arsenal had switched to a direct approach.
It suggests Giroud remains a better option from the bench, and there was more evidence of that against Watford. Arsenal barely functioned as an attacking force with Giroud leading the line in the first half, but that changed completely when he was substituted at the break, with Sanchez returning to the central role in which he proved so devastating earlier in the season.
Suddenly, Arsenal's attack was full of speed and invention. Sanchez's movement to the flanks allowed the likes of Theo Walcott and Iwobi to exploit the gaps and move into scoring positions, and the Gunners duly had more shots in the first 10 minutes of the second half than in the whole of the first.
Arsenal won four out of five Premier League games with Giroud starting up front, but their attacking performances against West Brom, Bournemouth and Burnley were largely unconvincing - and it was the same story in the first half against Watford.
Wenger's side carry more threat with Sanchez up front, and the stats support the argument. According to Opta, they have created just 0.5 clear-cut chances per game with Giroud starting compared to 1.5 per game without him this season. Wenger must consider changing it up against Chelsea.