Arsene Wenger must sort Arsenal travel sickness to kickstart campaign
Arsenal have problems on the road in the Premier League, so after dropping two points to Southampton at St Mary's on Sunday, Arsene Wenger will be keen for his team to make up for that when they face West Ham away on Wednesday night.
This season the Gunners have won just twice on their travels, drawn a couple, and lost four times with a goal difference of minus four. It's a problem that doesn't just apply to this campaign. In the calendar year of 2017 they've lost half of their games away from the Emirates, and only three teams -- West Ham, Stoke and Watford -- have conceded more goals.
It's an issue that must be troubling the Arsenal manager, and after the performance at Southampton -- when they again conceded an early goal -- he has a couple of key questions to answer.
In the absence of Shkodran Mustafi -- who will also miss the trip to West Ham -- Wenger erred on the side of caution, choosing the experience of club captain Per Mertesacker. The 33-year-old was found wanting for the Southampton goal, however, and when Arsenal need to change things in the second half, he was replaced by Danny Welbeck as they shifted to a back four.
On Wednesday night the Frenchman has to decide whether he sticks with the back three, with Mertesacker, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers all candidates to start, or revert a system he admitted last week he prefers.
"It's my preferred system, four at the back. But I adjust always to what suits the players best, the quality of the players, the balance of the team," he said.
It's an issue that has been complicated by the absence of Aaron Ramsey, one of the team's best performers in an inconsistent season. He divides opinion, but he has made more assists than any other Arsenal player, and has been the driving force -- along with Mesut Ozil -- in the team's best performances in recent weeks.
Wenger's defensive selection may also be influenced by the need to offer some protection to Laurent Koscielny, a player who requires ongoing treatment for an Achilles' problem, and who has looked like a man who is feeling the effects of that. The French international was uncharacteristically error-prone in the games against United and Southampton, and having to deal with physical issues may be having an effect on concentration levels.
Arsenal play three times in a week, and asking the 32-year-old to do 90 minutes in each game seems a risky strategy. Whether it's at the London Stadium or at the Emirates on Saturday, Wenger may have to show some faith in young defenders who have the potential to be part of the future.
Chambers was handed a new deal last month, a show of faith in him, while Holding -- despite a few mistakes here and there -- has performed well since his arrival from Bolton last season. If they're to establish themselves properly, they need the manager to trust them and play them, particularly when circumstances dictate.
What he does in midfield is bigger question. There have been calls for Jack Wilshere to see more Premier League playing time, and Ramsey's injury could provide an opportunity for him. That said, it's where exactly he fits that remains open to question.
The Welsh international is a relentless runner, an athlete with a non-stop engine, and that's not really Wilshere's strength, so it's unlikely he'll be asked to fill in on a like-for-like basis. He could come in for Granit Xhaka, who has been struggling for form, but he lacks some of the physicality required for that deeper-lying role -- especially when that player is left so isolated in the Arsenal set-up.
He's best playing a bit further forward, trying to break the lines with a burst of pace or a moment of skill, but that requires cover further behind him. That's doable with a change of system, and it remains to be seen if Wenger is willing to do that.
Last season he moved to a back four to shake his side from a slump, and to some extent it worked even if it hasn't made them much more defensively stable. He needs to do something to address their poor record away from home, so perhaps reverting to type and focusing on the team's attacking strength is the way to do it.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.