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Gunner Thoughts Matches

Dundalk-Arsenel: A flawless yet frustrating group stage?

How is it possible for your team to have a chance to win all their group stages, yet you feel frustrated by the matches? Arsenal have shown us.

We don’t often associate flawless with frustrating. Maybe there are a few examples that come to mind, but if a team you support is “flawless” in their results, it generally not something that frustrates you.

The Europa League group stages have been about the only positive for Arsenal’s first team during a two month spell that has seen them cascade down the Premier League table. Yet, as Arsenal attempt to complete their Europa League Group with a flawless 6 wins from 6 matches today against Dundalk, the run has been filled with missed opportunities and frustrations.

With the group firmly in hand going into Vienna, there should have been no need to play a side with so much seniority, nor substitute Willian and Ceballos into the match, yet Arteta did and it was frustratingly justifiable for most individuals.

Between players like Mari, Elneny and Calum Chambers returning from injury, Pepe being on his suspension, and the fact that Arsenal are in such desperate need of wins, results, and new solutions — matches like this under Arteta are filled with potential first team players trying to recapture a bit of form. On one hand, it’s the sign of a competitive team that players in throwaway matches are competing for time in the League. One the other hand, in a throwaway match that means nothing unless Arsenal lost by five or six goals, those are spots you would like to see given to youth players.

Players like Folarin Balogun and Emile Smith Rowe came off the bench, but Miguel Azeez and Joe Willock sat and a handful of other promising youth were left out completely. This issue doesn’t even touch on the overhwhelmingly frustrating aspect of William Saliba that loomed large over the whole group stage run.

William Saliba is a player that Arsenal invested heavily in, with the belief that he could become a the first team right-center back. Not to say that that dream is not still firmly on the table, but the way he has been handled by the club this year has encapsulated the fact that, behind the scenes, Arsenal have been in disarray and things are falling through the cracks.

Was Saliba supposed to be loaned? Yes, but there supposedly wasn’t the ‘man power’ to get it over the finish line during the first window, and there wasn’t the incentive to move him along for a domestic loan spell. So, he is at Arsenal and he plays in the cup games and Europa League? Well he had personal problems, reportedly due to a lost mother, that took a mental toll early — understandable — and Arsenal didn’t register him as one of their members of the squad. A huge mistake. Possibly the largest mistake they have made this year.

Saliba spent some time reportedly overcoming his personal problems, but since then he has vented to the media his frustrations about that situation, which tells you that he does not consider it to be prohibiting him from performing. It’s a positive sign, but where and when do you try him out? Dundalk would have been a pretty smashing time! Rapid Vienna last week would have been a pretty fantastic opportunity!

In Arteta’s press conference he talked about William Saliba playing and said, “Whenever we have the spaces and we believe that he’s ready to play with us.” To Arteta’s credit, he did follow that up with some very complimentary statements on Saliba’s improvements in the last few months, which could tell you that there were improvements needed, but the whole thing should leave you asking, “well, when is that?”

“Whenever we have spaces and we believe that he’s ready to play with us.” Well they won’t have Europa League “spaces” until the knockout stage and you can’t imagine Saliba is favored over Luiz, Mustafi, Chambers, or Holding — all of whom are battling for the remaining center back spot and have played — at the moment, so are we talking about the Carabao Cup match in December or the FA Cup match in early January? One is against Manchester City and the other isn’t that close, really. Another month of waiting! The whole situation feels like a prime example of the club lacking foresight as a whole, which is becoming more and more frustrating by the day.

Which brings us to tomorrow. Arsenal’s final group stage match against Dundalk, and Arteta’s last chance to pack the squad with promising youth. I don’t have a lot of faith. There was a slight increase in my optimism when Arteta said, “we have a few players here. We left a few players at home as well. There are a lot of games and we need a complete training week as well, which I think is going to benefit us.”

It suggests that many of the players Arteta intends to use this weekend against Burnley aren’t with the team for Dundalk, yet Arsenal are still in a spot where they have a large amount of veteran and non-youth players vying for serious time, which inevitably will come at the cost of how much youth we get to see. I cannot promise this is the case, I dont know who Arteta is intent on selecting, but it’s factors like these, throughout the group stages, that have frustratingly taken away from the fact that Arsenal are the only side in the Europa League and Champions League with the opportunity to win all 6 group stage matches, but have hardly taken advantage of the results, nor the group, to launch the club and their young prospects forward.

Lineup

Now that I have bombarded you with a bit of my pessimism, who do I think we WILL see in the side. Again, I could be wrong, and this competition is potentially much more difficult to predict, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a side similar in many ways to what we saw versus Vienna last week.

Runnarson retains his spot in net against a team Arsenal will be expected to face little shots against and a back four of Kolasinac, Mari, Mustafi, and Soares — very similar to what we saw against Vienna.

I selected a midfield of Maitland-Niles, Willock, and Emile Smith. It’s incredibly youthful, which could result in Arteta looking to add someone with a bit more experience who is struggling to get time, like Ceballos, and look to Smith Rowe off the bench once more. I would prefer the three younger players, but it has not been Arteta’s MO in this competition.

Up top, I returned to a Nelson, Eddie, and Pepe three. Pepe has one more game in his suspension, so I imagine he will play. Nelson has been immense in the Europa League, but hasn’t been included nearly enough in the Premier League. When it comes to Eddie Nketiah, he seems to be the most out of favor striker between Lacazette, Nketiah, and Aubameyang.

This would see Miguel Azeez and Folarin Balogun left to be used at substitutes.

Prediction: Arsenal 2-0

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