Olivier Giroud was arguably unfortunate to see red for his clumsy challenge on Fulham's Stanislav Manolev in the Gunners' win at Craven Cottage last weekend. You could even say he is yet more unlucky to have seen his 3 match ban upheld in spite of his appeal to the Football Association. The fact of the matter, though, is that Arsene Wenger is going to have to make do without his first choice striker for the next three of his side's key last four games of the season, and given the fantastic run the Gunners have been on recently, his suspension could just upset the consistency they have been enjoying. However, Wenger has other options in his ranks who will look to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Foremost in the Arsenal manager's considerations will be Theo Walcott, who stood firm and dug his heels in over a new contract and the chance to play through the middle earlier in the season. With Arsenal's form stuttering and clubs at the top of the table building a lead over them, Walcott eventually got his way and found himself up front for five consecutive Premier League games over the turn of the year. The motivation of an extra wad of cash in his pocket seemed to - temporarily at least - turn him into the goalscoring centre forward his side needed. Those games came after the demoralising penalty shootout loss to Bradford in the Capital one Cup, and Arsenal's season was under threat of being derailed at an early stage. They then, with the England international in his preferred central position, won the next three matches, scoring 13 goals in the process with Walcott netting 4 times, including an impressive hat-trick in the win over Newcastle.
Arsenal then stuttered again. Walcott remained up front for the trip to Southampton, but his side were far from their fluid best. They dominated possession in the way they tend to, but they lacked an incisive cutting edge and struggled to break the Saints down, managing fewer attempts (6) than they have had in any Premier League match all season, their only shot on target coming from that man Walcott. Their next Premier League match proved to be the final time Walcott would play through the middle. Laurent Koscielny's early red card certainly did not help matters; it prompted Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's withdrawal which in turn isolated Walcott. Interestingly though, it was enough to persuade Wenger that Walcott wasn't his best choice for the role. In the City and Southampton games, Arsenal played the highest and third highest proportions, respectively, of their passes forwards (42.7% and 37.9%) in the Premier League this season. Perhaps the success Walcott had in his first 3 games up front made the Arsenal players keen to get the ball forwards for him to run on to, in behind the defence. The only goal they managed in those 2 matches was, though, a rather fortunate own goal at St Mary's, and Wenger, one of football's most prominent teachers of a short passing game, clearly didn't think much of it.
Arsenal's erratic Ivorian, Gervinho most certainly has his critics, but could well prove to be the most likely option to play up top when champions United visit the Emirates on Sunday. He has already been deployed in the role against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City this season, and has in fact scored 3 goals in his 3 Premier League appearances up front on home soil. Primarily a winger, he is much maligned for the lack of final product to his play. In 45 Premier League appearances since joining the Gunners, he has only actually found a teammate with 4 of his 69 attempted crosses, a quite terrible return. He is also oft criticised for his finishing, but his 14.7% conversion rate in league games this season is in fact fairly decent. It ranks him 27th of the 69 players who have managed at least 5 goals, way above the likes of Giroud (10.3%), though Lukas Podolski, converting 20% of his chances, is up there with the best in the league.
The German has only been given one chance in the lone centre forward role since his summer move from Cologne, and that was in his very first appearance, a drab goalless draw with Sunderland on the first day of the season. Arsene Wenger has clearly indicated where he best sees Podolski in his lineup, and the fact that he has been given so little in the way of opportunities will have been a surprise to many, particularly as he scored 18 Bundesliga goals last season playing through the middle for a side who only managed 39 strikes in total and were eventually relegated. Podolski is undeniably inferior to Giroud in terms of holding the ball up, Giroud being the bigger and stronger of the two, but the venom with which he can hit a shot gives him the potential for a goal from nowhere, which is something that, arguably, Giroud, Gervinho and Walcott aren't capable of.
Without Giroud come Sunday, Arsene Wenger has no choice but to look at other options up front. Going on past experience, Gervinho might just be most likely to get the nod, though his selection would be the least popular amongst the fans. Walcott and Podolski would both relish the chance to play through the middle and potentially get one over former fans' favourites and now Premier League winner Robin van Persie on his return to the Emirates. It will be a tough choice for Wenger, and an even tougher task for the player he opts for in trying to break through a United back line who have only conceded in 2 of their last 10 league outings.