It’s matchday. Finally.
I won’t lie to you, it is quite a relief to have a midweek match to change up the conversation and offer a little respite from the last two days of mostly Mesut.
Today we get to talk about the rest of the team, about squad rotation, about competition, and about the aspect that makes us fans. Not transfers, squad registration, or financials — football matches.
Not only is it an Arsenal football match to sink our teeth into and get the blood pumping, it’s an important one. Rapid Vienna may not be top competition, but it’s a match we nearly never had. In Arteta’s prematch press conference, which mostly revolved around Mesut Ozil, he talked about the fact that it was only through the FA Cup that Arsenal qualified and the importance of the Europa League.
“Yes, because we know that this club has to aim for every competition and we have to be involved in European competition, so let’s start tomorrow. It will be tough. You haven’t asked too many questions about the game and I am worried, because I have seen from Rapid, they look a strong and dangerous side, so we better be prepared tomorrow.”
Last year, Arsenal were knocked out of the Europa League by Olympiacos on a night Arteta will never forget, for all the wrong reasons. Up by an away goal on aggregate, Olympiacos came to The Emirates and stunned Arsenal spoiling Arteta’s first European match as coach at home.
But, that was last year, behind the team, and Arteta is a Manager now. This campaign kicks off against Rapid Vienna with Arsenal in Group B alongside Rapid Vienna, Molde, and Dundalk, and Arteta may be the most excited man about today’s game. There are very few matches in which Arteta doesn’t seem to be heavily invested in, and at the young stage in career, very few he isn’t looking to prove himself.
“We are very excited to be playing back in Europe,” said Mikel, “again after a difficult season where we had to earn our right to play here through winning the FA Cup It’s a big bonus for us. We want to make the best out of it and every competition that we are involved in. Our aim is to try to win it.”
Tomorrow will mark two different firsts for Arsenal. It will be the first time Arsenal take on SK Rapid Wien from the Austrian league, which is an aspect of the Europa League some like, some hate. But also, it will be the first time since March that Arsenal will play in front of some form of crowd!
That’s right, there will be actual fans inside the stadium. “I think it is going to be really nice. It will be strange,” chuckled Mikel “but finally we are going to have some people there watching us who are not just the people working around us on a daily basis. It is an experience, let’s see how we feel it but it is a very positive thing.”
Strange indeed. Obviously we aren’t talking about a packed stadium full of hostile home fans belting it out for 90 minutes, but extra eyes and voices will be both a welcomed sight and sound. Many have wondered if the lack of crowd during the pandemic has played a role in Arsenal’s performance uptick. It’s certainly not hard to imagine that the ease of communication and coaching throughout has given Mikel the ability to relay his every thought and command — even without an Arteta-waterbreak special.
Most people will be expecting Arsenal to control tomorrow’s game comfortably, dictate play, create, and win. In fact, not putting out a comfortable performance will not bode well for people’s confidence post-Ozil making this game a real opportunity.
Arsenal can come out, dominate, and send a message everything is going to be alright, even if against a weaker opponent, and demonstrate why people should be strongly considering them for being contenders to win it all.
Arsenal are considered contenders, but there are questions around whether this team is truly complete enough to put it all together and juggle the thick, fast Premier League and domestic competition schedules. It demands a lot of depth, a lot of minutes, a lot of travel, and a consistent product on the field if you want to find success.
“Time will tell,” Arteta said when asked about the overall strength of the squad being good enough to handle the season’s ask. “Depending on what happens and this COVID situation, depending on the injuries… I believe we have the squad to try and fight till the last moment, and the passion. What we’re looking for in this competition is to go as far as possible and win it.”
The question for tomorrow, is what kind of side Arteta will turn to, and I actually believe it will be very strong. Rotated in a few areas, bedding a few people into the side, but overall strong rotated lineups in games like this seem, to be something Arteta prefers. It’s why I think we may see a few adjustments overall, but lineup on par or stronger than the lineup selected against Leicester in the Carabao Cup.
Arsenal announced their team news and injury updates yesterday that included:
Left ankle. Slight ankle bruising, will miss Thursday’s match. Being assessed ahead of Sunday.
Right hamstring. Sustained hamstring strain during the warm-up on Sunday at Manchester City. Rob is likely to be out of action for approximately three weeks.
Right hamstring sustained during Emirates FA Cup semi-final on July 18. Now back in full training and available for selection.
Right calf. Slight calf issue, will miss Thursday’s match. Being assessed ahead of Sunday.
Calum Chambers and Pablo Mari are close, which is fantastic, Martinelli is still projected for early next year.
Willian and Ceballos are interesting additions to the list, although I imagine they are more precautionary and likely to be strongly considered for the weekend.
We knew about Rob Holding’s injury that will see him out for 3-4 weeks, but this is official confirmation from the club on the matter.
In good news, Mustafi is back in the side and available for selection. Does he get the start as a way to get him some minutes in Rob Holding’s absence, or does Arteta stick with Luiz and Gabriel? William Saliba was not registered for the Europa League squad which means he is not an option. Great to hear Mustafi is back and available after he had quite the turnaround.
When it comes to Thomas Partey, I find the news great!
“He reacted really well, he came on and look strong and confident [against Man City] and he added something positive to the team,” Mike said. “It was a very short turnaround for him since he joined the team, he had a day, a day-and-a-half only in training. He has done a few more training sessions and he looks ready to start.”
This does feel like a perfect game to give him a start, start him next to someone like Xhaka who may be his partner in the Premier League, especially with Ceballos on the injury list for the match, and test that partnership and dynamic against a team Arsenal will look to attack.
It’s that attacking aspect that leads me to believe we will see Arsenal play some form of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, which means we have a change to the selection, and a reduction in the backline. My lineup:
Runar is an option at keeper, obviously, but I think Arteta will be content to keep Leno in net given it is early in the season, and there are question marks surrounding Runarsson’s talent. If Arteta selects him, I will begin to consider it more seriously. Runarsson has yet to make his debut.
For a central back pairing, I did return to a partnership that Mustafi is comfortable with. I believe Gabriel is the better player overall and a better fit for a back four, but given Mustafi is trying to get minutes and can play well on the ball, a return of the Mustafi-Luiz partnership may be in order.
Outside backs I believe will be heavily rotated, although my picks will win no favor with fans. Soares and Kolasinac were both selected for Arsenal’s match in the FA Cup versus Liverpool, although the circumstances were different. Certainly could see Ainsley Maitland-Niles be selected, I find him better, but Arteta seems to select these two more than one would guess.
Backline: Kolasinac, Luiz, Mustafi, Soares
When it comes to the midfield, I believe we will see a trio of decent players. This will be the bedrock of Arsenal’s team and the burst of experience and quality Arteta turns to in order to control the 90 minutes. I think it will be Partey’s first start, partnered by Xhaka and Willock.
In my image I have them playing flatter with Partey anchoring it, although that certainly could change. My thought is this allows Xhaka to play on his preferred left, Partey to be more central and control the match, while Willock plays the right in a role we have seen him play before.
Partey anchoring the midfield does not mean he needs to sit in and simply be a ball winner. The way Arteta has his teams adjust and alter themselves easily could see Xhaka dropping deeper to help while Partey gets up and times. This would also allow Kolasinac the ability to overlap with less defensive worries.
What about someone like Emile Smith Rowe? Quality player, really like him, high hopes, but I will let him make an appearance for Arsenal since his return from loan before I start selecting him in a starting eleven without provocation.
Midfield: Xhaka, Partey, Willock
Up top will be interesting. As Arsenal migrate toward a more attacking style of play, at least they desire to move that direction, the spots up top are getting pretty tough to grab.
Willian, Saka, Nelson, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah, Pepe. This doesn’t count Martinelli who will be returning early next year and definitely be in the conversation.
It’s because of this competition I think we will see some quality names, but a good rotation. I went with Nelson on the left, Nketiah up top, and Pepe on the right.
I think Pepe will continue to play in matches like this until he hits a good run of form and Arteta figures out how to involve him properly. I went with Nketiah, although there is every chance we see Lacazette given the fact that Aubameyang may be making inroads at being Arsenal lead man. Finally, I returned to Reiss Nelson who I thought was fantastic in his appearances on the left against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup.
Attackers: Nelson, Nketiah, Pepe
I would love to see Arsenal roll to an easy win with 3 or 4 goals and keep a clean sheet, who wouldn’t but I will settle for a game that gives us some insight into Arteta’s intent for the formation and tactics, sees some midfield chemistry built, and control over most of the match. This is a major game for Rapid Vienna so I do expect them to come out and give it their best go, but that puts the onus on Arsenal to shut that down. These are a few things I am looking for, although I will predict, 3-0 Arsenal.
See ya after the match!