Gearing up for another Europa League clash is something I find tough to do at the moment. It’s not that I consider the competition beneath us. No, given our recent run of performances, it would be hard to argue that we belong in anything greater than the Europa League. It’s mostly the fact that in its current stage, it’s not a match that will test Arsenal to the degree in which the Premier League tests them, and it’s the Premier League-type of molding and forging in fire the side needs.
However, as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, there are two aspects of this match that really interest me. First, and most simply, is the fact that 3 points would see Arsenal make their progression official, while also nearly guaranteeing they progress as the top spot. A win would put them on 12 points with a significant goal differential meaning they would have to truly self-destruct in their remaining games to falter.
Possibly the larger benefit to securing qualification is that it offers Arteta flexibility to mange his squad’s fatigue for the remaining two matches and rest key players, an aspect Arteta himself also commented on in his prematch press conference. “For the squad management, in football when you have the chance to grab something you have to do it in that moment.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen in a week’s time, two weeks time, in any game. There are a lot of things that can happen. I always tell the players, ‘When you have it, you can do it today, then do it and then forget about it, then let’s move on.”
To get those point, Arsenal will have to go through Molde once more. “They will be tough. It’s a different competition that we’ve been really excited about playing, against a team who we know are good and tough. They made it difficult for us in the first leg and tomorrow on an artificial pitch, it becomes different. We need to get used to it and today’s a good day to practice.”
Im not one to point to the artificial turf field as an excuse, but there was some nervy moments in the home leg when Molde scored first. It was followed by some really great play from Arsenal and two great movement that technically go down as own goals, but Arsenal had their work cut out against the second place team in Group B. Personally, I would like to see them use the turf to their advantage and ping the ball around with a lot of pace.
The second exciting point is the amount of youth players traveling with the squad. I’m not excited that Arsenal have racked up a lengthy list of small injuries recently, but it does offer potential opportunities in tomorrow’s match for the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Miguel Azeez, and Folarin Balogun.
They may not all get the call to be starters, but with five substitutions being allowed in the Europa League, one can hope to see quite a few of these youth players get minutes. We have been waiting all year for Smith Rowe to make his first appearance, but he has struggled to maintain fitness. Balogun got about 15 minutes against Dundalk, and as Arsenal look to extend his contract, it would be great to see more of him with the first team. He looks like a promising, attacking talent — something you can’t have too many of, if you ask me.
It’s been a tough week for Arsenal fans, but I imagine the difficulties have paled in comparison to the week Pepe has had. After being sent off against Leeds, he risked loosing the fragile trust Arteta had placed in him. If you were unsure if or when Pepe would get back into the Arsenal side, you wouldn’t be alone. Arteta addressed Pepe extensively in his press conference as the media looked for answers.
When asked if this was the best opportunity to get back in the side, Arteta said, “Yes, absolutely. We’ve all had disappointing reactions in our playing careers and obviously we were frustrated because when you play against a team like Leeds for a long time with 10 men, it makes a huge difference. Even more with the way they play. He had a really good reaction, the way he apologised, the way he understood his responsibility and hopefully tomorrow we can see the player that we want to see, and have a good reaction to help his team.”
“I will give Nico my full support all the time. He knows where he has to improve and we all know his qualities. He has some responsibility, I have a lot of responsibility, which is to get the best out of him and get the best position for him, the best areas where he can do what he can do with the ball.”
It seem, all that was left now was for Pepe to apologize. “Absolutely right, he did it. He did it personally and he did it publicly. That’s done.” For anyone wondering what the difference is between a Pepe headbutt and a Guendouzi choke that led to his expulsion last year, I would remind you that much of Matteo’s issues with Mikel arose after the match when he refused to apologize and reportedly conducted himself very poorly with Arteta and Edu, possibly others.
The selection, how they play, who gets subbed on, and the formation may prove to be more of a story after the match than the result itself. I expect Arsenal to win, but there are other aspects and storylines that may take the cake! It’s actually making me a little excited for the match.
Arsenal’s lineup should be a really interesting aspect of the game. We know that Mikel like to select very strong lineups, but with the running list of injuries, bits of bad form, and upcoming schedule, that may not be possible. However, he already knows that the cost of winning 3 points now is worth it for the relief in a few weeks.
This knowledge makes selecting the lineup a little more difficult. How strong will Arteta go? Who really needs a rest? Who really needs minutes?
The first question is, what formation are they going to play. A few images emerged of their training today and it looked like there was a clear four-back system being run. Additionally, I believe that if Arsenal are looking to use that system more often, they should try to stick with it against teams they can possess against. SO, it’s a 4-2-3-1 for me!
In goal, I have Leno who played last time against Molde and I believe will play once more. Maitland-Niles on the left given Tierney volume of minutes and Kolasinac’s illness. Luiz is coming back from having a baby and the weeks off during international break, so I have him in the lineup. Next to him, his trusty Mustafi partner. Soares hasn’t gotten the call in a while, but was asked to do some media work so I am selecting him to round out the back four.
In the midfield pivot I returned to the Xhaka-Ceballos look. Oddly enough, there are limited options within the midfield. That’s not to say Mikel couldn’t get fancy and select a Xhaka-Willock- Smith Rowe look, or some makeup that sees Willock join the pivot, but I have a feeling Arteta will go stronger in the central areas, at least until he starts making substitutions. Leading that midfield I selected Willock who was really fantastics against Molde. I know he struggled versus Leeds, but getting him a few consistent appearances could help him find a bit better form.
Up top I went with almost the same attacking three as last time against Molde. Reiss Nelson pulled out late and Willian slotted in, but I think Arteta will turn back to Nelson. Additionally, I put Lacazette in the center who seems to have been reduced to a cup squad member or backup given his poor form, and I did select Pepe. In my original lineup I considered have Willock take up one of the wings while Emile Smith Rowe played the attacking midfield spot, but after Arteta’s press conference I am sold that Pepe may get an immediate chance to redeem himself.
Like I said before, I expect Arsenal to win which will allow us to focus more on the performance, the selection, and the individual aspects of this match. Molde will likely make it a little tougher this time around given they have seen what Arsenal have to offer and this is in their home stadium, but once Arsenal manage to get themselves a goal or the lead, the gates will open up a bit.
Molde will be a well-drilled side who will put a lot of faith in to the counter attack. Arsenal will have to be a slightly weary of that fact if they do in fact deploy a 4-2-3-1. With one less defender, they do open themselves up to more attacking threats.
In the end: Arsenal 3-1