The damning stat that continues to hold Arsenal back

We all know that injuries have played a significant part in Arsenal’s stop-start season. That is indisputable. It has a significant effect every season, to be honest, given the propensity of our players to keel over at any juncture.

But injuries don’t really explain the enduringly frustrating, and damning, stat that we have not beaten Man City, Chelsea or Man Utd away since October 2011.

In fact, we have not beaten any of those teams home or away (in the Premier League) since April 2012 – almost three years.

It’s boring to hear it, but it does matter. It’s not a blip. We’ve been unlucky in some of those games, abject in others, but the bottom line is that we fall short every time against those sides.

And until that changes, it’s impossible to take us seriously. “They’ve Arsenaled it up again”. “The most Arsenal thing ever”. “Same old Arsenal”.

These things have a habit of self-perpetuating, both on the pitch and off it. Look at the body language of the players when we play one of those teams. They often look inhibited.

Ask most Arsenal fans what they think ahead of today’s game and they’ll probably veer towards pessimism. It’s just the way it has become.

Bucking that trend, jettisoning that miserable stat that places Arsenal in the shadow of those sides, is crucial. Which is why a win today would arguably be the most important in the league for three years.

Am I confident? Not really. For all the reasons stated above. But my inner self is going all Kevin Keegan circa ’96.

I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it. It really has got to me.

Which Arsenal will we see on Sunday?

A fine midweek dismantling, preceded by a possession-heavy, goal-light draw at home, which came after an underwhelming cup exit, itself just after a four-minute three-goal salvo that assuaged a dismal loss in Germany.

The pattern here is clear; we’ve spent much of the season veering from excellent to average and back, and to be honest, it’s hard to know which Arsenal we’ll see on Sunday. That feeling of uncertainty is magnified by our opponents, whose record against us has gone full circle (this Amy Lawrence piece reminds us that went seventeen league games unbeaten against them – though feel free to speed up the ball on your mouse when you get to the graphic about Mourinho v Wenger’s subsequent head-to-head).

It was a full circle that culminated in last season’s nadir, a thrashing on Wenger’s 1,000th match. And what a thrashing it was; naive, hapless and hopeless.

The Galatasaray match will have been a massive shot in the arm for the team, but we can’t expect such generosity in Chelsea’s rearguard on Sunday. Welbeck will find it hard to get ahead of their defence so readily. Our central midfield will not have the space it enjoyed.

So how to approach it? People often say that Wenger never sets his team up on an opponent by opponent basis, letting them instead express themselves in their own inimitable style. I think there’s an element of truth in this, but as with all statements, it’s not entirely right. When Arsenal went back to basics at the tail end of the 2012-13 season, we went far more defensive in order to stop ourselves from getting the lifeboats out at the first whiff of an iceberg.

I think, taking our record and our psychological state, that we have to adopt a far more pragmatic approach to this game than we did last year. I’m not suggesting we opt for the ‘watching paint dry’ tactical straightjacket favoured at times by our shy, demure opposition manager, but there’s obviously a lot to be said for playing a little more intelligently and taking our opposition more into account. 2-0 down after ten minutes is headless chicken territory.

George Graham’s tactic at Anfield in 1989, famously, was to not concede in the first 45 minutes, get the crowd a bit restless, try to nick something then see what happens after that. It worked. We need to withstand the early storm.

To stand half a chance, Wenger needs to play his best players in their best positions. For me, that means playing Ozil in the middle. It means starting Sanchez. I’m torn about Oxlade-Chamberlain though, because excellent though he has been, going out all guns blazing seems like a recipe for disaster. Cazorla’s ability to pass long, from deep, might be needed. Oxlade-Chamberlain from the bench.

So I’d line up with the usual back five, then Flamini, Ozil, Cazorla, Wilshere, Sanchez and Welbeck. There’s a lack of power in that midfield, but it’s hardly a game for Diaby or Coquelin.

You no doubt want me to finish this preview off with a backs-to-the-wall, tubthumping, defiant flourish. But I’m not sure I can pull that off, because I’m simply not that confident.

Nil-nil after 15 minutes would be nice. Then we can take it from there.