Arsène Wenger takes his side to West Bromwich Albion fearing his star summer signing, Granit Xhaka, will be a marked man in what is a traditionally combative fixture.
The Switzerland international has been sent off twice and booked nine times since his £35 million move from Borussia Moenchengladbach. Five of those yellow cards have come in the last five games since returning from his most recent suspension.
And embattled Arsenal manager Wenger, desperate for a win in the lunchtime kick-off if his side are to rejoin the race for a top-four finish, believes his 24-year-old midfielder is being harshly treated despite conceding to a crucial failing in his tackling technique.
“He is a victim a little bit of his reputation,” Wenger argued on behalf of a player whose red card against Burnley was the ninth in his young career. “You see tackles of some players who are much worse than what he did who don’t even get a yellow card and he got a straight red because he had a history of that in Germany I think he is a bit of a victim.
“I believe he is now in a position where on the first foul he gets a yellow card. For example last Saturday; first foul, soft yellow card. It is the way he tackles. He does not try to hurt people; it is more the consequence of the fact that he doesn’t master well the technique of tackling. He has improved a lot since he has arrived I think but he still has to work as you can always improve.”
Wenger insisted, however, that it was unfair to compare him to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté, who signed from Leicester City for a similar fee and has been the best midfielder in the Premier League.
The French coach added: “Xhaka is more about distribution of the pass and Kanté is more the ball winner, with the real technique to steal the ball without making the foul. You should compare Kanté more with [Francis] Coquelin than with Xhaka. Xhaka is more a distribution player.”
The possibility of Xhaka not staying on the pitch for 90 minutes against a physical Tony Pulis side on Saturday could persuade Wenger to recall fit-again Egypt international Mohamed Elneny.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain facing a late fitness test, he is also considering how best to shape his side with the under-performing Mesut Özil available to start again following illness.
Either way, he expects nothing less than the fiercest of tests against old rival Pulis. The pair have not always agreed on how the game should be played, but Wenger claimed: “I respect Tony Pulis because when you look at his achievements over the years he has been consistent with West Brom, before that Stoke and he was at Crystal Palace a short time as well.
“He has done well everywhere. He has his own way but he is very efficient and he makes life difficult for us.”