As Arteta gets ready to face Leeds United in the Premier League, he may be finding himself caught between two minds. One of priorities and salvaging the season, another of club stature and reputation.
It’s quite likely that Arsenal’s only route for achieving their overarching season goal of earning a place in next season’s Champions League will need to come via lifting the Europa League trophy. It’s an outcome of their own making, but after losing to Wolves and Aston Villa, the odds on climbing their way up the table are bleak.
However, that doesn’t mean Arteta or Arsenal are capable of just turning in the Premier League campaign and throwing their whole lot in on Europa League. While reputation only counts for so much, everyone will be well aware of the fact that Arsenal are not a club that finishes in the lower half of the table. If that’s where they end up, only the small chance of winning in Europe would save Arteta from having his table position used to stone him for his first Premier League campaign — and winning in Europe doesn’t have the greatest odds either.
“The priority is Leeds,” said Arteta defiantly in the press conference, “and then we go back to Europe. Obviously it’s a competition that we know can give us access to what we want.” While Arteta is likely to be given a second season to demonstrate that this rebuild can yield results, going into it under the scrutiny and criticism that comes with a finish below mid-table certainly could create a hostile environment. Which means Arteta is going to have to continue to take the Premier League seriously enough to win points, but cautiously enough to give the Europa League its due respect.
Today Arsenal face Leeds United at home and Arsenal will look to forget the first time around, especially Nicolas Pepe. Pepe has been in really great form lately, but he must show “he can maintain that level now for months, not weeks” as Arteta pointed out.
“I think he’s done much much better. I think there has been a click with him, even in his mentality, how he’s approaching every training session, the importance of every action in the game and how he can sustain his focus and his determination during games. I really like his attitude. What’s he’s done in the last few weeks I think it’s been much better”
Pepe’s performances have earned him a consistent spot on the left wing, even after Aubameyang returned to action. Pepe is one of the players that will really have to come to play against Leeds if Arsenal want points. His ability to receive the ball in space, transition the team into the attacking third, and make something happen with the ball at his feet could be influential in Arsenal’s campaign to break Leeds’ press.
The press, first and foremost, will have been the top concern around Arsenal’s camp this week. Leeds are the most frequent pressers in the league and they combine that with the fourth highest success percentage. They average 165 pressures per 90 minutes with a 32% success rate. That equates to roughly 53 occasions per match in which Leeds win back possession.
On the other side of the field, Arsenal have struggled against the press throughout the year, and frequently get caught by well coordinated pressures — especially in their attempt to play the ball our from the back and through the lines.
Of course, the best press numbers don’t automatically translate into success. Leeds have won games, but they have also had their press broken, leading to 38 concessions and a 0 goal differential on the season.
Live fast, die hard. That pressure and Bielsa’s style of defending through the attack has also led to 38 goals scored, a number that puts themselves in the same breath as the Premier League’s top 5 teams. It’s this style of play that has won them a lot of affection over the course of the season, but Arsenal won’t care about those affectionate people if they can earn themselves 3 points.
Arsenal have cleared their injury list in terms of quantity, but the two names on the list become more worrying every match they remain there.
“We have to see how the knee reacts when he starts to get a bit more load. He hasn’t had much left but he is very positive at the moment, he is in good spirits and he is desperate to get back in the team and we will see in the next few days, the moment he starts to train with the team and se how he is feeling and how he reacts.”Mikel Arteta
Partey’s season has been filled with injuries, something that’s unusual for him in his career and unfortunate for an Arsenal side now stuck with the same inadequate midfield as last season. News broke this week that it is extremely likely Partey will remain out for the next two weeks, including against Benfica.
“It is a difficult one, he felt something during the game and we didn’t think it was too bad but after the scan looked a little bit worse. He won’t be available to play against Leeds and we will see how it evolves in the next two days but it is a muscular issue.”Mikel Arteta
Even with Benfica on Thursday, a match that is much more important in the minds of most, I don’t believe we will see an immense amount of rotation. However, if the lineup I selected is completely wrong and Arteta rotates significantly, it would be warranted. However, with a complete week off since Aston Villa, I think Arteta will play most of his guys against Leeds and Benfica.
Leno will return after this suspension. Across the backline: Cedric, Mari, Holding, and Bellerin. Plenty of people could be looking for Arteta to put Saka at left back, which is a tactic I am in full support of, but if we see it, I believe it is more likely to be against Benfica, and I don’t believe we will see him do something crazy like putting Gabriel or Mari out on the left wing.
Next to him I gave Mari a return to action. Part of me believes Gabriel is the easy selection, and he is, but a match against Leeds that means less comparatively may be the opportunity to see if Mari’s presence can bring back the defensive results Arsenal were posting before Mari’s injury. Additionally, Mari is good on the ball which will be needed to help play out.
I kept Holding as his partner to return to the duo that had previously worked. Finally, with Cedric at left back, Hector Bellerin will retain his spot.
In the midfield: Xhaka, Ceballos, and Odegaard. Xhaka seems obvious, but the other two are a product of injury and rotation. While there are grounds to argue someone like Elneny who does a good job balancing out a midfield, he has also had some problems with his passing and ball retention that have lead to turnovers. Additionally, it would potentially go a long way for the remainder of Arsenal’s season if Ceballos can recapture some semblance of his form from the end of last season. He has the capacity to be better on the ball, better at scrapping in the midfield, and should be the better option over Elneny. That said, he hasn’t been. Still think he gets the nod.
When it came to Ødegaard, it was mostly about rotation, but also a chance to give him a first start and longer stint in a match. He came on for 30 minutes against Aston Villa and had some really impressive moments. It would be great to give him a shot so Arteta can assess what options he has in the Europa League, while giving Smith Rowe a little longer to rest.
Up top: Pepe, Aubameyang, Saka. The only change I looked to make was Lacazette making way for more rest time and giving Aubameyang a chance centrally. Arteta has a little bit of a problem on his hands with a player like Aubameyang not making the squad. Granted it could be viewed as a good headache because it means the likes of Pepe, Laca, and Saka are performing, it also means your captain and star isn’t cutting it. Playing centrally under Arteta hasn’t gone well for Auba in the past, but now he has a number 10 sitting behind him. Hopefully this can help relieve him of some of his duties while putting him in good positions to score.
I didn’t go with the 4-3-3 formation involving both Ødegaard and Smith Rowe in the midfield because against Villa it was clear that Xhaka struggles to anchor a midfield three and make the defensive plays necessary. Arsenal turned the ball over a lot and Villa created easy chances in transition. Thats exactly what Leeds wants to do and everything they are good at forcing. Not the ideal game plan in my mind.
This one is going to be tough for Arsenal. No need to sugarcoat it. Arsenal got a draw last time out, but in some ways, that red card may have helped. When Pepe got his red card, Arsenal shelled up and weathered the storm, but up until that point, it was almost entirely Leeds’ game to win.
They pressed Arsenal well, they controlled possession, they worked more than double Arsenal’s shots — even before the red card — and Arsenal didn’t really have an answer for that.
If Arsenal do want something, they are going to have to have an answer for the press and find ways to keep the margins tight but in their favor. Leeds will give up chances, they will give up set pieces, and their goalkeeper is one of the weaker links on their team. I don’t expect Arsenal to control the game or dominate it, not against the best press when they have struggled against pressure all year, but they can make their chances count and make life difficult on Leeds.
Unfortunately, Arsenal won’t have Thomas Partey to help against that pressure, but it will be down to that midfield three to help the backline out and escape the danger.
Defensively, Bamford has to be a worry. Arsenal struggled against Ollie Watkins and company last weekend, and Bamford will look to cause problems today. I selected Mari to help with some of that danger, but whoever is selected will need to come ready to play.
Overall, Leeds matchup really well against Arsenal. Their style of play is a kryptonite for the Gunners, and the backline as struggled against strikers like Bamford, even if they kept him off the sheet last time out. The Gunners can’t let the match become a track meet, but they also can’t afford for the whole match to be played in their own defensive third. Not an easy task.