Yesterday, Arsenal’s Europa League campaign got off to nice start. If not a rip roaring stroll that saw Arsenal put on a sparkling performance — it was at the very least a winning start. And on a day that saw Manchester United and Roma lose, and PSV draw in Arsenal’s group, not everyone can say the same.
To be fair to this Arsenal side, while there were some sloppy moments, and I believe it is fair to expect a higher level of technical ability during stretches of the game, Arsenal did deploy a heavily rotated squad, filled with players who have had limited game time and minutes together, and manage another 70% possession domination and 18 shots. Of course Zurich is a weaker side and currently second from the bottom of their domestic league on goal differential, but as Arsenal head into the weekend to — maybe — have a match against Everton, it’s good to be back in winning form.
Here are three quick, major positives from the evening:
Rotation + 3 Points
With early injuries to Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny, Zinchenko, Smith Row, Cedric, and even Ødegaard and Ramsdale, the topic of ‘depth’ is a tense one for Arsenal fans. Combine the injuries with a squad size that even Arteta admitted is light and a players like Saka burning their fuse from both ends in recent seasons, every fan is looking for opportunities to rest key figures.
When news broke that Cedric and Smith Rowe weren’t traveling with the team, and Arteta talked in his pre-match press conference about starting the Europa League campaign strong, many feared Arteta would prioritize the early three points over a rotated squad.
But to his and the team’s credit, it was filled with a lot of rotation and still put on a great performance. Nketiah, Marquinhos, Vieira, Tierney, Holding, Tomiyasu, and Turner all rotated into the lineup. Only Martinelli, Xhaka, Sambi, and Gabriel stayed in the starting lineup.
It makes a lot of sense that Arteta would look to continue to give Lokonga as many opportunities to gain experience in the midfield, and partnering with Xhaka, a player who has played with machine-like frequency, will continue to grow their partnership. Yesterday, Xhaka captained the side and offered a stroke of experience as well.
Arsenal won the game, as one would have expected before kick-off, and players that are likely to remain rotational figures or substitutions get minutes to help keep them warm. The last thing Arsenal want is to have to call on these players an have them not have kicked a ball in matches for months.
Finally, yesterday offered opportunities for new players like Fabio Vieira and Marquinho to get their first starts. Fans will have been excited to see them, and they did not disappoint.
Marquinhos Starts like a Star
When Marquinhos was initially signed for the small ~£3m fee, my first thought was, “I never mind the club taking a punt after young, prospective talent”. After yesterday, I’m wondering, “how far is this kid ready to go”?
In all likelihood he will still remain a player in training and out of the spotlight when it comes to Premier League minutes and appearances. Even after his wonderful debut performance, he doesn’t feel ready to truly give Saka a competitive run for the right wing spot. But if he has the ability to perform effectively throughout the group stages, without the need to have Saka shoulder the burden of those minutes, and Marquinhos can show the sparkle of a blooming star, as he did against Zurich, no fan will argue against the early signs of a successful signing.
If he can take it a step further and be available to offer himself for Premier League relief minutes, he will have superseded most projections of the role he would play this year. Even if he did only the Europa League portion and then was loaned out in January, he will have started his career in London on the right foot.
He looked like a star against Zurich as he stroked home a lovely finish on a bouncing cross from Nketiah, and then collected a second contribution by returning the favor for the would-be game winner. With 4 created chances (2 big chances), 2 shots, 3/4 accurate crosses, and the goal and assist — it was hard not to get vibes of young Martinelli or Saka, in a player with a lot of strength and physical presence. Definitely a player I am looking forward to seeing against PSV in a week.
Fabio Vieira Adds A Different Attack
Fabio Vieira has become an elusive figure in his early Arsenal days. It took him a while to recover from his injury, there was recent suggestion of an injury the club didn’t know about until his medical, and photos of him being integrated into training without him getting minutes in match situations one may have believed he would. All combined to a head-scratching “when will see him” moment a few weeks ago.
Against Zurich, it was clear that he would be replacing Odegaard in the #10, attacking midfield role, but it was slight unknown how he would play within those spaces. Things people knew, that he confirmed, included: tidy play on the ball, good presence in the half spaces, a desire to make himself available, a knack for getting on the ball, and the ability to put together a moment of brilliance by combining his excellent vision and passing capabilities.
One aspect that stood out but surprised me, was the difference between him and Ødegaard — mainly Vieira’s desire to make the devastating run or quick dart to put himself in a scoring position. While Ødegaard prefers to run the show from the top of the box, staying a little more on the fringes, and maybe supplying a long-range effort; Vieira seemed to want to navigate his way into the box or beyond the defense.
Do we call it the “Ramsey run”? The “Willock move”? The “Smith Rowe”? Maybe not quite. It still feels unique to Fabio, but it offers something great for Arsenal. Rather than a like-for-like sub, Vieira offers a serious change of pace, with little drop-off in technical quality. To go a step further, I find myself dreaming of ways for Arsenal to fit both Ødegaard and Vieira into the attacking front, while anchored by a single holding midfielder.
It’s likely a formation like that would only be used against teams Arsenal expect to dominate possession against, as this would leave the backline a little more exposed, but we have already seen Xhaka play a much more forward role from within the midfield. If an Ødegaard-Vieira setup could be pulled off, the duo could be incredibly fun to watch. Both like the right half-space, both are left footed, but if Arteta can scheme ways to tap into the Ødegaard’s desire to stay at the top and give Vieira the ability to slip in behind, it could be devastating. Dare I liken to de Bruyne and Silva/Gundogen?
It was a nice win to start of the campaign. Again, not flawless. But it offered a real window into Arsenal’s rotated side’s ability to control a game and get three points. It showed flashes of brilliance of new man Marquinhos, but also a continued bit of production and flair from Eddie Nketiah. It was great to see Granit Xhaka pushed forward again, and see Sambi lock down the holding midfield areas of the pitch.
Presumably Xhaka was able to be more free given Sambi’s ability to be more self-sufficient against a “weaker” Zurich side, but that’s a positive when you consider Xhaka started off the season great, but faded a little these last two matches.
Arsenal leave the evening top of their Europa League group, top of the Premier League, and hopefully a match against a very beatable Everton side this weekend. And THAT is a great reason to be happy.