In dramatic fashion, Arsenal managed to prevent themselves from bowing out of the Europa League in the most Arsenal fashion imaginable. Out on away goals in a two-legged tie where neither team played at home after gifting Benfica three goals in tragic fashion: penalty kick, a smashing free kick, and a diabolical error.
Whether the result has a positive impact on the morale of the squad will be something to keep any eye on, but does a match won in that fashion produce the juice? Undoubtedly there’s a thrill to such a comeback, but when the problem is of your own making, one could understand if the post-game reaction was one of relief more than hype.
It took Arteta throwing the kitchen sink at the match with three attack-minded subs, at the cost of unbalancing the side, to confound Benfica and keep their season’s pipe dream alive. As we look at Leicester City, the situation Arsenal are in continues to prove itself to be quite convoluted. Two competitions with differing levels of potential, player fatigue, and compact schedules make this a management headache for as long as Arsenal last.
The Europa League stands head and shoulders over the Premier League as Arsenal’s top priority. Yet, the Gunners have just nearly bowed out in the round of 32 which puts them a long way from achieving European qualification and winning the whole damn thing.
On the other hand, Arsenal sit in 11th place in the Premier League with 13 matches left to play. Champions League qualification likely became unmanageable when the Gunners failed to beat Wolverhampton. If not there, the follow-up loss against Aston Villa certainly seems like the final nail in the top for coffin. However, there still remains the slimmest of opportunities to qualify for the Europa League once more. While it will take a lot to convince fans to be excited for a third Europa League campaign, Arteta doesn’t feel like the type of manager to take his foot off the gas entirely and put every egg in this year’s Europa League.
It begs the question, does Arteta really go for it in two competitions and push his team to their physical limit, or do we see the Europa League prioritization come through in Mikel’s Leicester City lineup?
Arteta evaded the question in his press conference saying, “Let’s see how we are feeling tomorrow. Today the players are still in Greece, we have to travel back on a four-hour flight but we won’t use that as an excuse.”
“We have to deal with that, we know that when you play in European competition you have to be able to perform every three days and we will prepare to play Leicester with the same intensity like we always do.”
When it comes to managing player’s fatigue, there are a few players that fans may be concerned about, but two are certainly the focal points as Arsenal prep for a final run in: Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
When it comes to Bukayo Saka, it’s all about his minutes and how much of a beating his body can take before it breaks down and burns out. Saka has played 2,471 minutes this season in all competitions. Only Bernd Leno has played more, and only Xhaka comes close with 2464 for outfield players. It’s unsustainable to the point where many are becoming worried. Too worried? Possibly, but the history of injuries and losing young talents like Jack Wilshere to careers filled with injury are certainly wounds fresh in every fan’s mind.
Arsenal can’t allow that to happen with Saka, not without putting their best foot forward in preventing it. “He is a boy that is constantly willing to learn,” says Mikel, “to get better, to work on the things he can do better and he is a very humble and hard working boy. When that happens normally, and you have the talent he has, you can go a long way.”
Second is Aubameyang. While Arsenal’s captain has played his fair share of minutes, preserving him comes with a balancing act of maintaining fitness and form. He’s struggled for much of the year but has shown immense improvement in the second half of the year, in large part to the recent change in personnel around him. Since moving to striker with three creative players supporting him, he’s netted himself 5 goals in 4 games, but he could have had more against Benfica and Man City was always going to be a tough game.
If Arsenal can find a way to continue to supply Aubameyang with the service he needs, and the Gabonese striker’s role can see him simply asked to get into scoring positions, there’s something to be won here. Every Arsenal fan saw what a prolific Aubameyang can win them in last year’s FA Cup. Keeping him fit, motivated, and in form is a must of Arsenal want a chance to win anything.
To do that, Arteta is going to have to meticulously plan his lineup selections over the coming weeks. Arsenal need to find a way to win tomorrow against Leicester City to have any chance at even the top six and Europa League, but resting Saka seems like just as much of a priority. Resting both Saka and Aubameyang, and maybe even Ødegaard would possibly be in Arteta’s interest, but does he risk what that could result in for his already struggling season?
To be or not to be, dear Mikel? That is the question.To go for it or not.