Arsenal are gearing up the for their fifth match within the Europa League group stage, and despite it having little bearing on Arsenal’s qualification, it’s fixing up to be one filled with excellent storylines.
The Emirates should be absolutely bumping today with it’s 2000 attendees…or at least, in comparison to how it has been. That’s right! For the first time since Arsenal’s win over West Ham back in March, before the first lockdown, there will be supporters in attendance at the grounds. It will truly be a sight to behold, and is a fantastic step in the right direction.
While I may not be as pure of a believer in the fact that “no fans = no sport”, it was clear from the start that the fan element is essential. Pump in as much fake crowd noise as your heart desires, the experience is inevitably worse without you all. Is it going to be the same as when The Emirates packs 58,480 people into north London’s finest establishment? No, but it’s still going to be a welcomed sight.
The natural follow up question is, what kind of match are they going to see. Arsenal have done all their work upfront to qualify for the next round in their first four matches offering Arteta the ability to select a rotated and young lineup for the remaining two fixtures. Whether or not he will take full advantage of the opportunity to rest legs before the hectic holiday season of matches remains to be seen.
In his press conference yesterday, Arteta said, “We cannot treat any game differently. We go there tomorrow with a really bad taste for losing the game against Wolves and we have to put it right. The best way to do it is to be at your best level and win football matches.”
“Obviously we have a massive game on Sunday but we need to get back from the defeat as well, and it’s important not just to the respect the fans who are here, but for the club we represent. We need to give a really good performance and we have to win the game.”
It’s an interesting stance to take, and potentially a difficult one to read between the lines accurately. On one hand, he is right, Arsenal are in need of a bounce back win and performance after their recent run of form in the Premier League. Over the last month, the Europa League has been just about the only spot of respite for The Gunners. On the other hand, the notion of playing a full-blooded squad of first team regulars seems like a wasted opportunity to use the rest your side has earned before the onslaught of December matches.
Arsenal are scheduled for 10 matches in the next month and they are already battling against immense fatigue and fatigue-related injuries. It’s the Europa League, you’ve already qualified, many in the first team could use rest, and many youth players could benefit from minutes.
Win, lose, or draw — play the kids.
With all that said, maybe it is worth clarifying that that doesn’t have to mean selecting 11 youth players, plugging them into the side, hoping for the best, but arming them with little support. There is a balance that can be struck between youth and experience. Arsenal have a handful of quality young players, a few out of form veterans, and a couple players who have generally been demoted to more secondary roles. Playing them in unison should be a nice way to test the youth in a competitive setting, while still competing for a win.
Tested positive for Covid-19 while on international duty with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sead is currently asymptomatic and, following negative tests, has been cleared to be available for Thursday’s match.
Left thigh. Sustained strain to left thigh during Aston Villa (h) on November 8. Thomas is progressing with his rehabilitation ahead of returning to full training.
Available for selection. Currently serving a three-match Premier League suspension – unavailable for Tottenham Hotspur (a) and Burnley (h). Available for Europa League matches.
Left ankle. Sustained significant sprain to ankle ligaments during Manchester City (a) on June 17. Pablo successfully completed 45 minutes for the under-23s on Friday night in the PL2 against Derby County. Continues to participate into full training sessions as he approaches full match fitness
Starting with the backline. Interestingly, Arsenal seem to be short on central defenders once more, if you’re not looking to involve the likes of Gabriel, Luiz, or Holding. With Saliba unregistered, you’re essentially left with Chambers, Mustafi, and a slowly returning Pablo Mari.
Mari did make an appearance for the under-23s, but based on the Team News, it didn’t strike me as though he is ready for this competition yet. If he is, he could easily slot into the left side, but the time being I’ll stick with a rather sketchy little pairing of Chambers and Mustafi. Welcome back Chambers.
Outside of them, I have placed Soares and Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac is healthy, but Niles is just better. If Maitland-Niles is denied time in this match, it will be a very worrying moment for his Arsenal future. He was removed from the bench last weekend against Wolverhampton and replaced with Cedric. Yet another knock down the totem pole.
Let’s talk youth. You may have noticed is that the lineup isn’t filled with youth to the degree you may have been thinking. People online today will rattle off names like Miguel Azeez, Ben Cottrell, Charlie Patino, and Folarin Balogun who are really promising players from Hale End, but there are a few players in need of getting minutes into their legs or are suspended, they may take precedent.
I, of course, am talking about Elneny and Pepe’s presence in the side. I find Pepe to be a given. He was great versus Molde, is suspended for the next two Premier League matches, and it’s important that he stay in some sort of match form during these fixtures.
Elneny is a bit more interesting. Many will say that spot should be filled with other youth players, but after Elneny’s Covid absence, he hasn’t played match minutes. I’m not suggesting Elneny plays the full ninety minutes, but I imagine he gets the start to let him contend more comfortably for the weekend’s start. This brings us to our final point — subs.
If this is the lineup that Arteta turns too, I expect him to be replacing players with youthful substitutions. He gets five and using them wisely will be something to keep a keen eye on. Balogun should get minutes, Azeez should get minutes, and possibly even a Ben Cottrell appearance. Win, lose, or draw — Arsenal can afford whatever the result may be. The kids got to play.
Rapid Vienna played us well last time out and I expect the same this time around. Being at home, and in front of fans, will help, but we are playing against a side that is still in the running for advancing out of the groups. They will know that a win today would go a long way in helping their cause. Rapid Vienna plays Molde next week which means Group B’s second spot is still up for grabs. If you assume Molde will get a result against Dundalk, then Vienna will need to respond against Arsenal. Add in what I hope will be a rotated squad and we may be in for a tough matchup!
Prediction 2-2 draw, lots of good youth moments. Enjoy it!