After Arsenal’s first stumble of the season last weekend, the Gunners have an opportunity to do something they didn’t last year — bounce back from a loss with a midweek group stage game and recapture form.
No Europa League tends to dash that opportunity, in my humble opinion, but it’s here this year and Arsenal need to use it in their favor. That doesn’t mean they have to use the same squad, but if there are three things inevitable in life they are: death, taxes, and Mikel Arteta playing a stronger side in cups and Europa League matches than fans are happy to see.
News broke today of a strong team traveling for the group stage clash — one without Partey, Smith Rowe, or Cedric — and Arteta was asked about it in his press conference.
“We don’t have that many players available, unfortunately, with injuries we’ve picked up in the last two weeks. This is a competition that we want to take very seriously, against an opponent that is going to make life difficult for us. We want to start the competition the right way and maintain our momentum. “
If I had my choice, which I do not, Arsenal would be using this match as a real opportunity to rotate in fresh legs. Rests for Jesus, Saka, Ødegaard, Zinchenko, Gabriel or Saliba, White, and Ramsdale would go a long way as the compact season’s fixtures ramp up. This would mean playing time for Nketiah, Vieira, possibly Marquinhos, options for youth players, Tierney, Holding, Tomiyasu, and Turner.
If Arteta is set on using a strong side to kick off the European campaign, I would like to see Arsenal look to use it as an opportunistic testing ground. Seeing if a center back pairing of Saliba and White is possible would top my list, but seeing a dual attacking midfielder setup with Vieira and Ødegaard is a close second. I wouldn’t go as far as starting Zinchenko in midfield if Arteta truly backs Sambi — it’s another opportunity for Lokonga to get crucial minutes — but if that spot is up for grabs, sliding Zinchenko into the holding midfield role would be an interesting dynamic.
As I said before, the ability to provide a significant portion of the team rest is the higher priority in my eyes, but untimely injuries to Smith Rowe and Cedric remove two potential rotation options, if Arteta had been looking to slot Tomiyasu into center back. The news of Partey not traveling is significant given the chances he has to return this weekend or shortly after, but not all together surprising.
When asked about Smith Rowe’s injury, initially reported by David Ornstein after the Manchester United match, Arteta said, “He felt discomfort in an area that [he’s been dealing with] now for a few weeks. He wasn’t comfortable after the game and he hasn’t trained in the last few days, so he’s out of the squad.”
It’s a really unfortunate blow for him and Arsenal. Smith Rowe has had a history filled with major, minor, and niggling injuries that seem to align with his opportunities to start all too frequently. Here, again, was a really great time to find a bit of form and make a significant contribution to the team in the Europa League. He also is a player that stands to play a major role in Arsenal achieving the heights that are setting out to reach this season. Last year, Smith Rowe contributed 11 goals and 2 assists across all competitions, and for a team that is looking to notch 80+ goals in the Premier League this year, he would be a key figure.
While Arsenal fans will wait and see what his injury timeline looks like, they will be really looking forward to seeing a first Arsenal start for another player at the tail-end of his injury – Fabio Vieira.
“We were looking for players that could play in three positions in the frontline and in the attacking midfielder positions” said Arteta when asked in his press conference. “We were looking for very specific qualities in the market and when I saw him, I really liked what I saw. Straight away, I was convinced that he was a player who can help us go to the next level and that he had the right personality and character to play for our club.”
Arteta interestingly added, “It’s a shame that we detected an injury when we were doing the medical. He had no pre-season and everything has been delayed, but hopefully you’re going to see a lot more of him in the next few weeks, and I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it.”
While everyone has known for a while now that Vieira suffered a setback early in the Summer when he picked up a foot injury with Portugal, it seems hard to believe the club found out about that at his medical. This leaves me, personally, wondering if there was an additional injury that set this back or if Arsenal — and maybe even Fabio — were unaware of the severity of the his injury.
Regardless, fans caught their first tease of what Vieira could offer Arsenal’s attack during his brief but well-received stint against Manchester United, and one exceptionally sparkling ball was enough to assure every fan of one thing: they wanted to see more.
The Europa League kicks off against Zurich and Arsenal will be taking this tournament as serious as the Premier League. While everyone will have eyes set on a fourth place finish, or better, the Europa League offers a path back to Champions League football as well. It starts with the group stages, but Arteta will have to be savvy in how he navigates his fixture list if he doesn’t want to run the risk of players burning out during the crucial Spring months.
Hopefully Arsenal control, dominate, win, and recaptures that buzz they had after winning their opening five matches. Getting back on track will go a long ways toward not making matters worse on Sunday when they play Everton for another precious three Premier League points.