As Arsenal boarded their plane to return home after their 1-1 draw to Benfica, one imagines Arteta won’t have spared a thought at being disappointed he wouldn’t be able to see the Colosseum or Pantheon during the trip to Rome. It was a frustrating result given the chances squandered, but from the moment the final whistle blew, the clock began to tick and Arsenal’s countdown to welcoming Manchester City began.
The Gunners had under 72 hours between their Thursday Europa League match and Sunday’s Premier League fixture, and they’ll have needed every second of it to count.
There’s no break for the Gunners on the horizon as four of Arsenal’s next five Premier League fixtures come against teams that sit higher than them in the table — a fact that has not escaped Arteta.
“That’s when we will define our season, if we are able to close the gaps in those games with them,” he said.
“It’s going to create some momentum for us and we’re going to get closer to them. We know that the margins for error are minimal with the season that we’ve had in previous months, so we need to kick on.”
The margins for error may be small, but the margin between Arsenal and Manchester City probably goes well beyond the 22 points that separate them. Unfortunately for the Gunners, their subpar results against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton, and even Benfica in its own way, has raised the stakes on these next five matches exponentially.
A draw in the opening leg of a Europa League tie, especially with an away goal, is far from the worst outcome, but the wasted chances could have put the tie away completely and allotted Arsenal some flexibility in the coming days.
It’s probably a big ask to demand or expect points from this match given the form that City are in at the moment, another point Arteta is well aware of.
“I think they are the best team in Europe at the moment,” he said. “The way they’re performing, the football they’re playing and their consistent results.
“What they’ve done is react to difficult moments. A big team has to be able to do that. When everyone was doubting their ability to be able to compete again and be the team that they are, they reacted in a really convincing way, all united, doing what they do best and being very consistent by winning games very comfortably.”
The challenge facing Arteta at the moment is how to approach this game in a fashion that gives his side the chance to perform at home, while properly prioritizing this upcoming fixture list.
Emile Smith Rowe looked fatigued as the Benfica match continued, Saka has played an immense amount of minutes this season, Xhaka plays every game but his minutes stacking up, and even Ødegaard may need a cautious eye from the manager. Ødegaard’s situation is less about the minutes he has played with Arsenal, and more about the lack of minutes he has had this season, coupled with the potential role that he’s proving himself worthy of for the remainder of Arsenal’s season.
Europa League. Premier League. Are they far reaches or within grasp? Avenues toward season-salvation or pipe dreams?
The rest of the league seems to be fighting tooth and nail with one another to ensure they don’t claim a spot in the top five which leaves just enough hope to drive Arsenal fans mad. Arsenal should have beat Wolves? Could have gotten more from Villa? There are the six points that separate Arsenal from being level with Everton and Liverpool. Yet many will look at the situation and take note of the fact that four teams are placed between Arsenal in 10th and West Ham in 5th. Another challenging reminder that Arsenal’s future isn’t entirely in their own hands.
So what do you do, rest and rotate despite a tough match against Manchester City or put our your best lineup and deal with Benfica and Leicester City when the time comes?
It’s a decision that could have been easy to make had Arsenal done themselves a favor in their matches against Villa, Wolves, or Palace, but as it lies, Arsenal find themselves between two minds. The lineup will be an interesting one, no doubt. After Arteta opted to select the exact same lineup for Leeds and Benfica, rotation seems like a given, but how much?
Simple rotation of a few players here, a few players there, but the same 4-2-3-1 formation, or a more drastic switch to the 3-4-3 formation that took them all the way to the FA Cup once upon a time? It would certainly be a way to try to contain City while resting the likes of Ødegaard, Smith Rowe, and even Saka if he wanted.
The problem is the kind of result that leads too and wondering whether Arsenal now need to find a way to get something, anything, from this matchup with City. Even as unlikely as it may be, can they afford not to go for it? It’s a decision that I imagine would split the Arsenal fanbase right down the middle, and one everyone will wait with bated breath to see where Mikel stands.
The tough run of games continues, and there ain’t a lot of obvious rest points for the Gunners.