By Rob Kelly
“When we played against them in the FA Cup final it was a very difficult game. They could not use Jelavic in the cup last season, and since then they have bought some good players. When you look at their teamsheet now, it looks like they can beat anybody so I expect a tough game.”- Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
It is inevitable that for those of an Arsenal persuasion, Saturday’s meeting with Hull City will instantly draw the memory back to a certain nerve-shredding evening at Wembley five months ago.
It was the FA Cup final that had been talked of for weeks as the game that would finally deliver that long-awaited trophy for Arsene Wenger and his players. Against opponents who had finished in 16th place in the Premier League, some 42 points off the Gunners, it was agreed by most that the form books pointed to just one winner.
But the FA Cup has never been any great respecter of form or reputation. Within 10 minutes of kick off, it was all going horribly wrong for Arsenal at Wembley again. Trailing 2-0 and owing a debt of gratitude to Kieran Gibbs for heading a potential third off the line, Wenger’s side had to call on all of their reserves of heart and character to haul themselves back into contention.
Just under two hours later, it was mission complete. The wait was over and Arsenal were FA Cup winners again - but it had been an uncomfortable, emotionally-draining ride for the manager, the team and their supporters.
“It was a sweat! We hadn’t won a trophy for years, we were 2-0 down after 10 minutes and nearly three, and because we had to sweat until the end. It was a very, very, very demanding game on the nervous front,” Arsene Wenger said with a smile.
Saturday’s game is likely to be a less dramatic affair, but it retains its own sense of importance. Following the defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge two weeks back, Wenger is keen to see his side return to winning ways as quickly as possible - and that starts this weekend against Hull.
“We had a disappointing result just before the international break, so we came out of the game frustrated because we felt that we played well enough to get a positive result,” the manager said.
“Apart from that, most of our players went away on international duty and had positive experiences so they came back in a good mood, especially our big group of English players because England won their two games.”
Now the challenge is to transfer that positivity into three points on Saturday.
One of the big success stories from the international break was Jack Wilshere. The 23-year-old has been in outstanding form of late and he was the dominant force as England maintained their 100 per cent record in Euro 2016 qualifying with successive victories against San Marino and then Estonia.
His performances strengthened Wenger’s belief that, despite playing slightly out of position at the base of the midfield for the national team, Wilshere is at the peak of his powers once more.
“He’s developing well because he’s been a consistent presence in the team,” the manager said. “The top level today demands that you play every week. He improves and progresses as he plays every week and that improves his quality.
"He’s back to where he was physically and he has more experience today. His final ball is better and he has kept his penetrative capacity with the ball"
“He’s back to where he was physically and he has more experience today. His final ball is better and he has kept his penetrative capacity with the ball. He has a good mix between threading the ball behind the defence and making the difference individually. That is Jack back to his best level.”
But it was not all been good news for the Arsenal manager during the break. Firstly Mesut Ozil’s knee injury was confirmed as serious enough to rule him out for an extended period, while Laurent Koscielny returned from international duty with France early due to an Achilles problem.
And with Calum Chambers suspended for the visit of Hull, it means that it will be something of a makeshift back four on Saturday - with teenager Hector Bellerin stepping in and Nacho Monreal shifting across to centre back. It means a lot will fall on the shoulders of Per Mertesacker at the back, but Wenger is confident he will relish the challenge.
“Per is a leader and this is a good opportunity to show that he is one. I have no doubt about that,” he said. “He will lead our defence like he usually does and he will give confidence to the players who come in.”
Arsenal may have won their past five Premier League encounters with Hull, but they have made a solid start to the season and have been widely lauded as one of the big winners of the summer transfer window.
The additions of the exciting Hatem Ben Arfa and Gaston Ramirez on loan, were supplemented with proven Premier League performers such as Michael Dawson, Robert Snodgrass and Mo Diame.
The capture of the Uruguay international Abel Hernandez really captured imaginations on Humberside, and the striker has adapted well to life in England, claiming two goals in his first four games.
|Arsenal: Ramsey (hamstring), Gnabry (knee), Walcott (knee), Sanogo (hamstring), Debuchy (ankle), Giroud (tibia), Ozil (knee), Koscielny (Achilles)|
It is down to Steve Bruce to mould these new signings into a Premier League force, but Wenger is certain that Hull have the perfect man for the task.
“He’s one of the top managers in England - that’s not bad,” the Frenchman said. “He has been that for years because everywhere he went he did a good job.
“The consistency of the quality of his work is the most important sign of the quality of a man. You cannot go to Hull and win the Premier League, no matter how good the manager is, but what he’s done there is absolutely exceptional.
“They’ve really done well and they’ve bought quality players. That’s why today you look at the names they have on the teamsheet and you know you have a tough game.”
Saturday’s game comes at the start of a busy period for Arsenal - but one that will be seen as an opportunity to move up the league and generate some momentum after a tough start to the new season.
Following the visit of Hull, the Gunners travel to Sunderland, host Burnley then go to Swansea in the Premier League. It will undoubtedly throw up some challenges, but Wenger is hoping that it will also bring the best out of his side before the next international break.
“We want to [build momentum],” he said. “It’s a post-World Cup year and we’ve played four of our seven games away. We had a difficult schedule away from home.
“We’ve already played Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea as well as the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas. We have enough quality to come back from the Chelsea loss.”
That is what they must prove against Hull - but if the last meeting between the two sides is anything to go by, it is likely be a searching examination of their credentials. Wenger, like all at Arsenal, will hope it is a good deal less dramatic - albeit it with a similar result.
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