Before Arsenal’s second successive FA Cup final appearance at the end of the month, the Gunners face four more Premier League fixtures in their pursuit of a second placed finish, and next up for Arsene Wenger’s side is the visit of past-troublers, Swansea City.
In his first full season in charge, Swansea stalwart, Garry Monk, looks set to achieve the Swans highest ever Premier League finish, having already amassed 53 points with three games left to play, another season high since the South-Welsh outfit have been back in England’s top-tier. Swansea defeated Arsenal in the reverse fixture at the Liberty Stadium earlier this season, as they look to achieve a double over the Gunners at a stadium where they have only lost once in the league since their return to the top-flight.
Below is Swans fan and VAVEL reader, Steve Ashmead’s, take on what could potentially be another tough encounter for the Gunners against their Welsh visitors, as well as thoughts on Swansea’s and Arsenal’s campaigns with the season drawing to a close;
Q: With Swansea on the cusp of a potential Europa League spot and set for their highest Premier League finish, alongside their highest points haul, what are your thoughts on Garry Monk’s first full season in the Liberty Stadium hotseat?
SA: At first a lot of the fan base were concerned with the appointment of Monk, it’s one thing being a caretaker manager for a third of a season but another thing to manage an entire campaign. I however trust in Huw Jenkins, as Swans fans have become used to in recent years to make the right decision at the right time. Take nothing away from Garry, he’s gone from ‘Monks’ to ‘Gaffer’ in no time and has shown promise for the future, not only with recruitment (Jack Cork being a key signing in my opinion) but also his trust in youth such as Matty Grimes and Jay Fulton, particularly in the cup competition.
I think Europe might be a stretch too far this year with Southampton a classy outfit this season; to be four points behind them and only five behind Spurs at this stage is impressive. We hope now that we can keep him here before the 'big boys' inevitably come knocking for him.
Q: Do you believe the Swans have progressed under Monk from their time with Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup? And should he merit a shout for LMA Manager of the Year?
SA: The foundations were laid for this Swansea team back in League One under Roberto Martinez. Labelled ‘The Swansea Way’ this was the tika-taka football that served well under Rodgers. Unfortunately there was no 'Plan B' under Rodgers and a lack of steel that carried through to the Laudrup era. Although the trophy cabinet was opened for the first time with the League Cup triumph under Laudrup, the season after would prove to be difficult, not helped by the Europa League campaign of course. Ultimately Laudrup was the first Swansea manager sacked for 12 years and in came the centre-back who was long forgotten in the U21 team.
Monk has added this steel and fight to the Swans team which was once missing, and has shown his tactical talents by introducing the new diamond formation which served well to provide Swansea with their first ever Premier League double over Manchester United. Although the trophy cabinet will remain empty this season the bread and butter is the Premier League and Monk should be recognised for his work. As for the Manager of the Year award, as Monk said himself, Jose Mourinho should be honoured. Chelsea have been unstoppable all year and played the season out safely.
Q: Staying on the awards subject, who would be your Player of the Year for the Swans and do you think any other Gunners merited a nomination alongside Alexis Sanchez?
SA: I think it has to be Ki Sung-Yeung this year. After being deemed surplus to requirements under Laudrup he has returned to the club from Sunderland and never looked back, scoring eight goals (the same as Sigurdsson) and scoring in each game against Man United. As mentioned previously, Jack Cork has really impressed me since his January move along with Jonjo Shelvey who has that moment of magic within. However I will stick with Ki.
Alexis Sanchez is out of this world and can only really be matched this season by the likes of Eden Hazard at Chelsea; an astute signing by Wenger who finally seems to be willing to splash the cash and buy real quality. I think Santi Cazorla is ever the genius in the Arsenal midfield with either foot! And a lot can be said for David Ospina this year. Arsenal clearly trust him and the defensive unit look so much more stable with him in goal. I wondered why he wasn’t started earlier this season, especially when Lukas Fabianski (thanks for him!) seemed to be the better option to Wojciech Szczesny earlier this year; Wenger has a class goalkeeper there, another piece of the jigsaw addressed.
Q: With a second successive FA Cup final on the horizon and a second placed finish in sight, do you think Arsenal have moved forward in their pursuit of mounting a realistic title challenge once again?
SA: I believe they can seriously challenge next season for the title. If they can add that little bit of quality up front to take the impetus off Olivier Giroud then Arsenal can take it to the wire with Chelsea in 2015-16. Since being in the Premier League this is the strongest Arsenal team I feel we have faced and was surprised when we won the previous encounter at the Liberty this season. Arsenal are definitely a team to watch in the summer.
Q: As Wilfried Bony is still the clubs' top scorer this season, is there a future for Michu back in South Wales after his underwhelming year on-loan at Napoli?
SA: Known as the forgotten man this season, I hope he can come back and add something different to the team again. The issue is he has been crippled by injuries for 18 months now, but has had positive signs of a recovery. If we see the right attitude and a fit Michu with as much desire as 2012-13 I’d welcome him back in a heartbeat. I think the consensus within the club may be that the ship has sailed with Bafetimbi Gomis coming in and various other strikers linked this summer. As for Bony, unfortunately it appears that he has been struck by the Swansea curse, however I wish him all the best at Manchester City and hope he achieves his potential next year, if not get a loan bid in Huw!
Q: Onto another mercurial character; Is Monk getting the best out of and finding consistency from a previously unpredictable, Jonjo Shelvey?
SA: What a story Shelvey has been, from England call-up to claims of laziness from Garry Monk. Personally I worried every time Shelvey was on the pitch prior to February, as he could provide a moment of magic one second and be walking down the tunnel the next. Since the public criticism from Monk, Shelvey has become a complete and consistent midfielder, culminating in two assists last week against a physical Stoke side. I would never have thought Shelvey would be outperforming the classy Gylfi Sigurdsson at this stage of the season.
Q: Do you see Monk adding to the squad well over the summer and what are your hopes at the Liberty for 2015/16, as well as who to look at for next season?
SA: The worry when he came in was pulling power for players to choose the Swans. A huge advantage is the way Swansea play football, similar to Arsenal, an attacking passing brand that players appear to be attracted to. Gomis had the choice of several clubs and opted for Swansea ultimately. I hope for two new strikers, someone to come straight in to offer Gomis support (this may be Michu) and a young striker such as Anderlecht's Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has been linked recently. It's hard to know where Swansea can go next year; keep the core players and I believe it could be a European slot. Something I would really like is an FA Cup run, it's the one competition we have failed to impress in so far in our history and as Aston Villa have proved, the teams with smaller budgets can still compete.
Q: Swansea against Arsenal has rarely flattered to deceive since the South Wales sides' return to England’s top-tier and having only lost one of three past Premier League fixtures at the Emirates, what do you make of the Swans' chances on Monday evening?
SA: I always enjoy watching the games between the two sides, similar style of play and plenty of chances. Some memorable ones for us, mainly the Michu brace at the Emirates a few seasons ago. This game has also been very kind to us points wise and the record between the two teams within the Premier League era is completely even. Arsenal will be harder to do the double over than Manchester United, with a more complete squad, but play well and we could get another win and it could be an exciting game, especially at a buzzing Emirates at night. My actual prediction would be a draw, with Arsenal already thinking of Wembley now the title race is over.
Q: Of the Swansea starting line-up who is most likely to cause the Gunners the most problems and who would the Swans fear most from Arsenal’s first XI?
SA: A player that I've failed to mention so far is Jefferson Montero; for five million pounds he's an absolute steal and has torn many defences apart this season. I think he had an outstanding game in the reverse fixture and Wenger even subbed the young Calum Chambers off as a result. Montero has been in and out of the team however, so someone to look out for who will definitely start is Shelvey, on his day he is unplayable and will pull the strings from behind Sigurdsson, Gomis (who returns from a hamstring injury) and the Ecuadorian winger, on Monday. If Swansea have a chance it will be through Jonjo.
In the Arsenal lineup it's hard to look past Alexis, but surprisingly Danny Welbeck has a good record against us, so let's hope he is genuinely injured for Monday's tie. I'm going to have to state the obvious though as Sanchez is the one man that can finish a game off before it's even begun for the Gunners!
Q: And finally, score prediction for Monday Night's encounter?!
SA: Very tough. I'll go 1-1, Sanchez and Sigurdsson for me, but I'll be praying for Hymns and Arias to be ringing from the Emirates at full-time on Monday evening to celebrate another memorable night.