As Arsenal prepare for their second Europa League fixture, it stands to be an intriguing one. Because the matchup is two colossal titans squaring off for their shot at the knockout rounds? Not so much.
No, what makes this matchup an intriguing one is the storylines that will likely surround both squads.
When it comes to Dundalk, their recent history is a pretty epic tale. If you are a subscriber to The Athletic, you can check out a great piece about how this small club from Ireland has made it to the big stage, and what exactly this match means for them. For those that aren’t, it’s a great story of a manager coming into a small club filled with mostly part-time players, establishing a new culture of true professionalism, and their tale of overcoming numerous hurdles and burdens, on their way to dominating Irish football.
To be on a stage like the Europa League and traveling to London to play at The Emirates against a Premier League side like Arsenal, offers a pretty historic opportunity.
“I think it’s a great story,” said Mikel. “Linking different backgrounds and different countries into that history is a good one to hear. I watched a long interview with him because I wanted to know who he is, what he is trying to do and what he is trying to express to his players.”
“This is where I found out what happened and straight away he said he could feel that the players believed in what they were doing, which is everything that a coach wants. I think they have created a really good chemistry that has given them a big boost from last season. Big merit to them for the work that they are doing.”
To be fair to all, it is a great story. I mean real Hollywood movie, 8-part HBO series stuff — especially if there can be a climactic ending like beating The Arsenal.
Arsenal will set out to play spoiler to the Cinderella story, and make amends for a recent run of poor form and performances. If you wanted to argue that Arsenal’s last good match was against Fulham, you might not be far off — although given West Ham’s recent results, I suppose Arsenal’s 2-1 win seems like a hard fought 3 points.
However, losing to Man City 1-0, struggling to a 2-1 win over Rapid Vienna, and failing to play a complete 90 minutes resulting in a 1-0 loss to Leicester City will have Gooners and Gunners feeling more than a bit anxious.
Falling victim to a Brendan Rodgers, Jamie Vardy smash-n-grab raid hurts, but it was more than that. The first half may have been a point of positivity if the half that followed wasn’t devoid of all signs of life. The complete one-eighty in attacking prowess demonstrated a lack in ingenuity, a lack of drive and creativity, and a lack in Arsenal’s willingness to be daring with the ball at their feet. That, coupled with handful of tactical and positional selections from Arteta, will have had Arsenal fans sleepless over the last three nights.
Arteta commented on a few of these aspects in his prematch press conference before Dundalk, especially with Manchester United looming at the weekend. One aspect Arteta pointed to as an explanation for the drop off in play is fatigue, and it’s something I talked about in yesterday’s blog.
“We created enough chances for sure to go ahead on the score, we didn’t manage to do that,” Mikel commented. “We scored a goal that was disallowed and the second half we started, probably fatigue wise, to make more mistakes in more difficult areas and not be as effective as threatening as we should have been.”
Between fatigue, and an increasing number of nagging injuries, Arsenal will have to closely monitor the squad tomorrow, at the weekend, and in the coming weeks. Luiz went down injured against Leicester and definitely won’t be playing tomorrow. Willian and Ceballos were hurt recently, but are coming back to full strength after missing Rapid Vienna, and are both available for minutes. Saka took a knock during the Leicester match but is reportedly training well.
It all brings us full circle to the fact that Arenal will likely need to play a heavily rotated side, despite Arteta’s historical record of selecting very strong lineups for competitions like this. While it’s not possible to explicitly say he will select a lot of youth, there is certainly a plethora of reasons he might.
It leaves us with Dundalk, a side trying to make club history, versus Arsenal, a side trying to stay healthy, stay rested, avoid embarrassment, and correct their path with an injection of different players.
I am truly excited to watch.
The two most intriguing parts of tomorrow from Arsenal’s perspective are the lineup Arteta selects, and how that lineup comes out and attacks the Dundalk defense.
Dundalk are a team with complete confidence in their manager’s word and the knowledge that this may be the largest game they ever play in their lives. It’s probably an invigorating feeling and one that will be all the motivation they need to stay the course and make Arsenal’s life difficult. They watched Vienna frustrate Arsenal for 70 minutes just one week ago and it will have instilled a belief that they could be capable of the same.
So, who does Arteta turn to?
I am going to go bolder with this lineup when it comes to rotation. In fact, it is probably a little too bold, but I believe that this offers enough rotation to help legs, enough core players at the back to prevent us from getting sucker punched by too much inexperience, —although technical level could be up for argument — while giving us some attacking options.
It maintains the 4-back system we have seen Arsenal deploying recently and attempting to move toward. It offers youth players an opportunity to get real minutes in a big competition. And it welcomes back three players that have been very good in their limited opportunities — Elneny, Maitland-Niles, and Reiss Nelson.
Reiss Nelson was a major point of conversation in Arteta’s last press conference, and I believe this will be another chance for him to shine after a splendid performance against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup went relatively unrewarded.
His name has been hot on many fan’s lips as they search for an injection of creativity and ability on the ball. This led to the press asking for details surrounding his potential loan during the transfer window, and the conversation with Arteta that resulted in Nelson staying.
“Reiss was also really convinced that he wanted to fight to stay here,” said Arteta. “And when you see that willingness and passion and that security in a player, you feel tempted to keep him even though you know opportunities are going to be restricted and he’s not going to have a lot of continuity in his play.”
“But things change very quickly and if he plays well and does what he can do, why not? Why can’t he start to play more games?”
Who knows if this will result in real, consistent Premier League minutes for Reiss Nelson, but another good performance filled with good bits of dribbling, chance creation, and fluid play could certainly make a major statement of intent.
The side I selected above would be one filled with storylines. Runarsson gets a debut, Maitland-Niles finally starting over the woeful Cedric Soares, Smith Rowe getting a chance in the midfield, and veteran Elneny leading the side with his calm and collected presence.
If I had to guess, a lineup like this would be supplemented heavily with a quality bench. Arteta will know he has 5 subs at his disposal, which is enough to change half his outfield, and flip the entire match on his head. Against Rapid Vienna, he subbed on Aubameyang, Bellerin, and Kieran Tierney with three of his subs. Not exactly small time names. A tactic we could certainly see Arteta turn to if the match is in any sort of doubt.
If it is the side we see, it will certainly be an exciting match up!
I have to predict that Arsenal win a match like this, although I don’t imagine Dundalk will make it easy. I think it will be a bit of a steady onslaught until the whistle blows or Arsenal get one. Once they get a goal and force Dundalk to expand, and chase the game, a few more will follow.
4-0 Arsenal. Sorry, Dundalk.