Update: Ozil and Torreira will not travel with the team to Olympiacos.
Arsenal are coming off of one of their most thrilling wins of the year. Not only because of their four goals – something they haven’t done in the Premier League this season – nor the rare clean sheet. Although both of those factors added to the thrill of Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Newcastle, it was the timing of this performance that made it most thrilling. With Arsenal’s back against the wall, coming off a highly scrutinized team break in Dubai, and fans begging the team to show some signs of a fighting spirit – they delivered.
I am all for giving the team the praise they deserve, even if it’s a game versus Newcastle, and, boy, do they deserve it for their second half performance. However, it raises the expectations and desire to see them deliver again on Thursday versus Olympiacos. For a while, the Europa League has appeared to be Arsenal’s best chance at securing a place in next season’s Champions League. While there seems to be a little bit of an opening left in the Premier League (somehow), that still remains true. Arsenal sit 7 points and 6 spots outside of 4th place and 6 points outside of 5th place. With 12 games left, and the fixtures that remain, Arsenal have every chance of going on a run and making something happen, but to some extent their fortune is out of their own hands. It would require a handful of teams to drop points in a handful of different games.
So, on the day before the first, highly anticipated Europa League Knockout Stage fixture against Olympiacos from the Super League Greece, Arsenal fans wait with bated breath to see if their team can deliver a second straight performance and get the result. Not only would this performance be a second on the trot, but it would come away from home – where Arsenal have struggled – which would be the second hurdle this Arsenal team has to get over in their project of rebuilding. Not the easiest of tasks.
What to know about Olympiacos
There is no doubt that Arsenal will be looking for a repeat of the last time the Gunners were up against Olympiacos, which ended with a Giroud hat-trick and 3-0 victory. The idea of an Aubameyang hat-trick is enough to drive any Gooner mad with anticipation, but history suggests this opening matchup will be far from a stroll through the park. Olympiacos sits 1st place in the Super Greece League with an astounding +41 goal differential (50-9) that suggests this team has a stranglehold on their domestic league. Despite being only 2 points above second place PAOK Thessaloniki FC, they are have a comfortable 13 goal cushion on goal differential.
Take these stats with a grain of salt. No one would claim the Super Greece League to be quite at the same level as the Premier League and Olympiacos struggled in their Champions League group. Placing 3rd with 4 points behind Tottenham and Bayern Munich, they were ahead of FK Crvena Zvezda who only managed to win one game – against Olympiacos (3-1). No matter how to look at it, Arsenal will be tested in this first leg away from home against a team that hasn’t lost since November against Tottenham. In fact, since that loss, Olympiacos has 14 wins and 4 draws – clearly a better run of form than the recent Gunners.
Given that this game is at Olympiacos’ home stadium and is the first European competition fixture since Olympiacos dropped out of the Champions League, Arsenal should ready themselves for a lively atmosphere. Olympiacos fans will be looking to create do their part as their team attempts to jump out to a comfortable place before they are forced to travel to the Emirates for the return leg. The question will be, what kind of line up does Olympiacos play.
Olympiacos suffered a setback when Hilal Soudani was ruled out for the rest of the season at the start of the month, but looking at their recent games and the lineups they trotted out for Champions League matches shows a team willing to change things up. Everything from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to a 4-5-1 has been used and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them be adventurous to take a cautious chance at catching this Arsenal team out. However, no matter the formation they play, I think we will see an Olympiacos team brimming with confidence that they can beat this 10th place Arsenal team.
How will Arsenal Respond?
If there is one thing Arteta has stressed since taking up the manager role, it is that this team needs to create an identity that they play within regardless of the opposition in front of them. I imagine that will be the case on Thursday, as well. Granted Olympiacos will not be as willing to let Arsenal control the ball the way Newcastle was, Arsenal will look to possess, move the ball through the lines, and create overloads down the wings to get in behind.
I imagine the positive side of the way Olympiacos will look to play is that they may not be as embedded into the backline as Newcastle, which may give the likes of Ozil and that front attacking three more room to navigate. However, there is a good chance Olympiacos will look to soak up pressure to counter hard and effectively seeing the success teams have had against Arsenal this year catching our backline unprotected with a few too many numbers thrown forward into the attack. Arsenal will have to be weary of this, which will put further emphasis on the importance of the role often filled by Xhaka to remain defensively diligent and sniff out those counter attacks to put a stop to them.
The real anticipation for Arenal fans will lie within the lineup selection that Arteta picks. I imagine he came into the week with some preconceived notions about who he would select, but some of that may have changed given the display at the weekend. Arsenal were finally able to see the player that Ceballos could be within a functioning, midfield pairing and saw their £72 million-man Pepe rake in a goal and two assists. It should be noted this came at the cost of leaving Gabriel Martinelli, another youngster showing promise this year and delivering results, out of the lineup.
Plenty of decisions face Mikel and those decisions will raise plenty of questions moving forward. The main one for tomorrow will be, “does he stick with the lineup that performed so well at the weekend, or make changes to fit the game in front of them?” I imagine we will see a changed line up that offers a little more defensive stability given it is an away fixture, but no one could blame him for trying to stay consistent and reward the likes of Ceballos with another start.
Given this is Arteta’s first Europa league game, I will put out two lineups. One that I believe will be the lineup and one that could be if Arteta looks to be very adventurous.
Martinez, Bellerin, Papa, Luiz, Kolasinac, Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Auba, Lacazette, Pepe
I believe he will look to put out a steady defensive lineup by adding Torriera and Sokratis knowing this is an away fixture where Arsenal have struggled. It is a toss-up with the keepers. Martinez has played most the Europa League fixtures, so I am sticking with him – subject to change. If Arsenal can get a draw with at least one goal to take back home I will consider this a successful first leg. It may rely on some real proficiency up front and some dynamic subs later in the game to see us across the finish line.
If Arteta were looking to change things up, be a bit more adventurous, or try something unorthodox it could be interesting to see:
Martinez, Bellerin, Mustafi, Luiz, Torreira, Xhaka, Ceballos, Martinelli, Auba, Pepe
In this lineup he would still be defensively disciplined by adding in Torriera to partner with Xhaka. Mustafi and Luiz would add a little more passing range to the backline while adjusting the roles of Ceballos to play more of that box-to-box role. This could offer a little more work rate and defense than Ozil often provides. This lineup would require a lot of the attacking to come from the wings with outside backs looking to overlap while trying to use the raw speed and talent of Aubameyang, Martinelli, and Pepe to create goal scoring opportunities. I by no means endorse this as a plan that would work, but it is something we haven’t seen them do this year up front while still providing some defensive cover.
Until line ups are announced, we can only wait! Big test for the Gunners but one I believe they are up for.