Finally, that’s over. The international break comes to a close, we can put that nonsense behind us until March, and I am ready to bomb back into more regular blogging.
Yet again, the international break has left it’s mark on the league, and Arsenal. Injury, illness, and fatigue – Premier League sides will have to combat the affects of international duties on their squad.
Last time, Arsenal had to go to extensive lengths to get Tierney out of quarantine after his Scottish teammate tested positive. This time, Mohammed Elneny and Kolasinac tested positive themselves, ruling them out of contention completely. Kolasinac may not be the biggest concern for Arteta, with all due respect, but Elneny is a bit tougher.
After seemingly establishing himself as the preferred partner to play alongside Thomas Partey, he struggled against Aston Villa, and now misses with illness. To make matters worse, Thomas Partey will also be out after suffering a thigh injury during the first half of the Aston Villa match right before the break. Arteta will need to respond with a different pivot than he has had in recent matches, and I have a suspicion we may see the return of the Xhaka-Ceballos duo that helped carry Arsenal to late-season success.
Illness and injury won’t be the only issues that kept Mikel up at night in the last week. Player fatigue will absolutely come into play at some point. Will it be against Leeds this weekend? Maybe, maybe not. But in a season where fatigue issues were always going to be an issue this season, international breaks like the one we just had only compound the difficulties.
Objectively, it was a terrible break for Arsenal on many fronts. Bukayo Saka played 3 games in 6 days, Kieran Tierney played 3 games in 6 days, Pepe played 2 games in 6 days, Aubameyang slept on an airport floor during his time with Gabon, Elneny and Kolasinac tested positive for Covid, Partey’s injury was confirmed as “significant” from Arteta, and Willian flouted the lockdown rules to jet off to Dubai.
Between fatigue, illness, injury, and behavior issues — it could make for an interesting lineup selection to deal with a Leeds United side that lives by the philosophy of “all gas, no brakes” and have had two weeks to rest and prepare.
“That they will go full gas like they always do,” said Mikel when asked what he expects. “And they have had two weeks to prepare for the game, they don’t have as many internationals as us and I don’t expect them to change too much.”
“They are very loyal to their principles, to the way the play and they approach every game the same way, which is to win and to be very aggressive with and without the ball and try to win. It doesn’t matter where they play, what I have seen from them in the last season, it is not a concern about who they play against, it is about what they do.”
Arsenal’s manager was seemingly all compliments in his press conference, and the respect goes both ways. “Arsenal is one of the best teams in the league,” Leeds manager Bielsa said.
“They have players of hierarchy in all of their lines. They have a manager who proposes a style which distinguishes the team. He’s a coach who wants his team to play as he projects. From a tactic point of view, if you watch Arsenal closely they show things that I have never seen in any other team.”
It’s that type of tactical thinking that will be needed to get Arsenal a result at Elland Road. Arsenal can hardly afford to take on as much pressure as they did against Aston Villa whose steady onslaught of pressure led ton Arsenal’s worst performance under Mikel Arteta who will want to seize the opportunity to make amends.
“Obviously it’s been a painful week because normally when you have a defeat at home, you want a game straight away. That wasn’t the case but we used that as well to reflect on what we are doing, to analyse why that happened.”
“We were all shocked the way we ended the game, the last 25 or 30 minutes, before that it was a different game but still we have to improve in many areas. That consistency is something we need to get much better at and after the good result and brilliant performance at Old Trafford, to get that loss was a shock to the system for everybody.”
I’m not so sure everyone else was as shocked as Arteta. Maybe that the performance was as diabolical as it was, but a lot of the writing has been on the wall, and I couldn’t help but feel what we saw against Villa simply confirmed the fears many have had in recent weeks. Poor attacking, very defensive-minded, demanding efficiency, and not a lot of margin for error in the match script. When it went wrong, it went very wrong.
Arteta will have to find solutions, and fast, if he wants a response from his side against a team that is more than capable of holding their own in their first Premier League season under Bielsa. Leeds have also struggled lately, losing three of their last four, however, their win came emphatically against Aston Villa. It’s a porous defense (17 goals conceded in 8 matches) but a toothy attack (14 goals scored in 8 matches) that presents a handful.
Will Arteta sit back and look to get numbers forward on the break, or will he look to control the ball and limit Leeds time to attack? Leeds maintains the Premier League’s 4th highest possession average with a very impressive 59.6% average, and their pressure has won them the ball 34 times in the attacking third.
It tells you that Arsenal will need to find a way to beat the press when they play from the back. It’s something that they are capable of but hasn’t always gone well. Good performances against Manchester City and Liverpool in the FA Cup and Community Shield, were returned with struggles in the Premier League earlier this season. Additionally, Arsenal will have to find a way to handle the numbers that Leeds throw into their attack without shelling up and planting all 10 of the outfield players into the backline.
3 points would go a long way in the easing some of the fears that have festered during the break, but a good performance may go further.
Understandably, major questions surrounds who Arteta will select to carry out the tactics, who will replace the midfield, who is coming back from international duty and still ready to go again, and what formation Arteta will opt for — 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3?
Tested positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Egypt.
Tested positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Left thigh. Thomas was replaced at half time during the match against Aston Villa and has sustained a strain to his left thigh.
Continues to be assessed, will not be available for this weekend’s match and will continue his rehabilitation.
Additionally, Pablo Mari and Gabriel Martinelli are still rehabbing their long team injuries.
This leaves Arteta with a handful of options, should he look to make a changes from the Villa game, as he should. Unfortunately, if I am being pressed to make a decision, I’m just not sure we will see the type of wholesale changes fans have may want. Even when it comes to the formation, I am still convinced Arteta believes for matches against stronger teams, a 3-4-3 is the way to play.
I don’t reckon many people will be enthralled with the pick, but this would be 6 changes in the side, which is a significant amount. I know many want to see Nelson and Willock play, they want to see Aubameyang central, they want to see daring changes, and see Arteta try new things. The problem is, I don’t view Arteta as a man that looks to try things within his starting lineup.
In back — Leno will stay in net, Gabriel will maintain his hold as a core player in the backline. I believe Tierney will still play, despite the run of Scotland games, simply because it is who he is as a hard-nosed defender. Finally, Luiz will get the call over Holding. Holding wasn’t impressive during the Aston Villa game and in a side devoid of creators, Luiz just offers more in that regard, as we saw against Leicester before he went off with injury.
In the midfield — A return to the Xhaka-Ceballos pivot that was adopted toward the end of last season given Elneny and Partey’s absence. Bellerin will absolutely keep his spot after starting this year as one of Arsenal’s best attacking threats from the right, but I have opted for Maitland-Niles on the left. Saka has already played nearly 900 minutes for Arsenal this year and another 308 minutes for England. That’s a lot and he may need a break for his own good. AMN also offers a nice, athletic, defensive option against this Leeds team.
Up front — Two major changes. Pepe to replace a struggling Willian while also offering Arsenal a great outlet on the counter attack, to get at Leeds on the break, and Nketiah in for Lacazette who is struggling to get himself up and down the pitch, while offering end product. I’m not sure Nketiah is the long term solution either, but until Arteta pulls the trigger on moving Aubameyang central, Eddie may be who Arsenal fans are left with. Finally, Aubameyang to retain his left wing roll and hopefully get a few opportunities to attack spaces left by Leeds getting numbers forward.
While I did not place them in the starting lineup, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock are two players I believe need to be options off the bench, and should be given minutes. They have performed fantastic in their Europa League and cup matches, and they offer Arsenal a few things that others don’t. Really hope to see them tomorrow.
I always give a prediction, but this one is tough. I am not sure how the team is going to respond after the Villa loss and the two week break. I’m not sure how legs are going to do against a rested Leeds team that will look to turn this into a very open match. And I’m not sure Arsenal won’t take on too much pressure early.
Subs will play a key role in this, as will Arsenal’s central pivot. Subs will need to be used to relieve legs and that central pairing needs to facilitate the transition and look to break lines, potentially from deep. It certainly won’t be an easy game away from home.