Arsenal are gearing up for their third match of the Europa League group stages after beating Rapid Vienna, and comfortably beating Dundalk. Group B is a group that Arsenal shouldn’t have any issue topping, but managing to top it while conserve the legs of regular ‘first-teamers’ is a challenge Mikel will have to navigate.
Normally, it might not be a large concern, but when Mikel points to fatigue after the Leicester City match and suggests heavy legs and fitness played a role in Arsenal’s slower second half against Manchester United — both after Thursday, Europa League fixtures — it fair to voice some concern.
In fact, this year, fatigue, fitness, and nagging injury issues will be a concern that every club faces if they make runs in multiple tournaments, aside from domestic leagues. It’s part of the reason Arteta will need to find the ticket with not only his regulars, but the supplementary rotations.
Arteta doesn’t believe in a true Premier League, Cup side type of setup. I think that will be evident by the rotational tinkering he does with the lineup to fit the gameplan he wants Arsenal to execute on, in order to exploit the opposition throughout the season.
“I believe we have to manage over time the minutes and exposure that we give to the players,” said Mikel. “Also in the International break they play three games, then until March we are playing every three or four days. So we have to think what we need at the present and mid-term as well a bit because it is going to get really, really condensed.”
What made the interview interesting was when this question was followed by asking if it is plausible for Arsenal to compete in every competition.
“That’s a tough question to answer. I think now we have the numbers to do that. I think we can rotate players. I think we have enough players in the squad to be able to maintain a really competitive squad.”
“We’re playing every three or four days at the moment and you start to get injuries, suspensions and whatever comes is going to get more and more complicated. This is our obligation, to try to compete in every competition and we’re going to be trying to do that until the end. Obviously, the circumstances will dictate how well we can do that.”
You can tell that every one of Arteta’s bones is a competitive bone. He wants to put out strong teams. He has complete faith in the sides he selects. But as a new manager, I do believe squad management is another test for him at this early stage.
The next stage of that test, Molde.
Molde has put forth a good start to group stage, not only winning both their matches, but dominating Rapid Vienna on the stat sheet. While it’s too early to tell what will happen in the back-half of these group fixtures, Vienna will be hoping for a Molde loss to keep themselves in contention.
Molde will look to build on the confidence, dig deep, and find a way to come up with a result at The Emirates, knowing the side they are likely to face is a rotated, youthful Gunner’s side. Mikel believes, “their strengths are that they work really well as a team. They are a really strong, physical team. They are really well organised.”
“I would say defensively, they are really hard to beat when they get in this middle-low block.They have some creative players who are dangerous int he final third and they’re a real threat on set-pieces as well.”
Despite the decent praises from Mikel, the expectation will be that Arsenal take the game to Molde, break down their defensive shape, stretch them, and try to take care of this match early. Easier said thab done.
It took Arsenal 40 minutes to break the deadlock against Dundalk and I expect this will be a bit more of a challenge. Three points and a good performance would go a long way in believing that Arsenal are closer to having two quality sides within them than we thought.
With that notion of two quality sides in mind, let’s take a look at a potential lineup. First, team news:
Left thigh. Sustained slight thigh issue during Leicester City (h) on 25 October. Now back in full training and available for selection.
No others are fully ready for selection but there a few players worth noting:
Left knee. Ruptured anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee during Chelsea (h) on December 29. Now back in full training and progressing well towards full match fitness.
Left ankle. Sustained significant sprain to ankle ligaments during Manchester City (a) on June 17. Continuing outside running and strengthening programme, together with light ball work. Aiming to integrate into full training after the November international period.
That is a minor set back on the return date expectations for Mari, pushing him back to November. Makes Saliba’s denial from Europa League registration a little harder to stomach.
Arsenal are at a really interesting place right now when it comes to lineup selection. There are a handful of positions with really good competition for selection within the Premier League — center midfield, center defense, striker, right wing — and there are a few players that have fallen out of favor or are coming back from recent injuries.
It’s kept the lineup selection a bit of a mystery before it’s announced, and it also provides a few games like this. Ones against the likes of Molde, but which may feature a very strong side.
Runarsson to stay in net after an easy but faultless night against Dundalk.
Luiz and Mustafi to take up the center back pairing given both have had recent returns from injury, know each other well, and have seemingly lost their starting spots in the league to Gabriel and Rob Holding. Kolasinac to stay on the left as he has for other Europa League matches and AMN to get the call on the right. Against Dundalk, Niles was put on the left because Kolasinac was a left center back alongside Xhaka in an unorthodox lineup, but Niles is significantly better than Soares so I really hope he gets selected.
In the midfield, I have gone with a midfield 3 to break down Molde’s defensive block and it is a relatively strong one. With Ceballos and Xhaka falling out of favor to Elneny and Partey in the midfield, both are in need of an opportunity to assert themselves and make an impression with Mikel (sorry Roy, Gaffer). I also selected Willock due to his recent performance against Dundalk. He was great. There were questions about whether he could do it against better competition. We will find out today.
One person I left out of this midfield is Emile Smith Rowe. Last week we heard Arteta mention that there was hope he would be available for Molde. Given I haven’t seen his name in the team news, I think it’s very possible he is selected for the 18. I didn’t place him as a starter, but I think it makes a lot of sense to see him come into the match early in the second half. It makes sense to sub him into the midfield for Xhaka, Ceballos, or even one of the wingers to then slide Willock out wide. In any case, I do think we will see him get some minutes which is exciting.
Up top, I stuck with the same front we saw against Dundalk. Nelson was brilliant, Pepe had a brilliant goal but needed a bit more, and Nketiah scored despite an only okay performance. But that is what they are in the game to provide, so I expect to see them once more.
I don’t expect this game to go as smoothly as the Dundalk match, unless Arsenal manage to break the deadlock early and force Molde out of their defensive shell. I think Molde is more organized, just as confident in themselves and their plan as Dundalk, and a much more skilled side. However, I think Arsenal will win and it won’t take major substitutions like Aubameyang, Bellerin, or Tierney like against Rapid Vienna.
I am going to go with 2-0 Arsenal, relatively comfortable.