It is very important that Arsenal take first place in their group.
Have you heard? Have you heard this? Has anyone, I mean ANYONE, told you this?
Yeah, of course we have heard it the whole group stages, and it remains true. It’s also is very clearly the most important thing to Mikel Arteta. And because it ranks so far and away his top priority, Arsenal fans should come into this matchup with PSV Eindhoven, away from home, expecting to see another strong lineup from the Gunners — if not the strongest lineup they have fielded in this competition to date.
When asked about picking a strong lineup in his press conference, Arteta chuckled, “We don’t have that many players!”
“We bring the players that we have and we have brought four kids with us so we cannot even make up the squad, but we need to put 11 players out and they need to play – we cannot change those 11 players every game.”
Mostly he was having a bit of fun with his answer, but it is a reminder to us all that he feels we should remember this Arsenal team may have depth in the form of 15-18 players, but aren’t at that point where they boast two near-full squads ready for rotation.
It’s a fact that comes with Arsenal’s territory. One, a team in the Europa League, trying to claw its way back into the prestigious Champions League money pool. Two, a team that is undergoing as massive rebuild and overhaul project with an underlying challenge of resetting their wage bill and refusing to buy players that don’t cut it for the long term vision.
It’s left Arsenal with a 26-man squad, plus some academy youth, and while this competition’s group stages are historically is marked as “for youth”, Arteta has used it for lighter rotation, a way to keep batches of his better players sharp, and show his faith to those Premier League XI-fringe players.
In his press conference he was even asked, ‘how do you keep players happy’? “Play them and then let them speak on the pitch. The best way” he responded.
And it’s true, but it means we are seeing the Vieiras, Sambis, Tierneys, Nketiahs, Holdings, and Turners play — less the Matt Smiths or Cirjans. Even less Marquinhos has been seen since Arsenal’s opener versus Zurich saw him steal the show.
Some fans have spent the group stages a little frustrated by the selections and substitutions of Mikel, but if you are one of those, I’d refer you back to these two points: It’s important to win the group not just advance and it’s important to Arteta to play those fringe players.
The combination seems to result in the strong lineups we have seen, and is likely to continue to do so today with the ability to officially clinch first place. And while this combination seems to rub a few fans the wrong way given the belief that Arsenal’s energy and fatigue are being greatly effected, it’s a tough pro-con, risk-reward decision to assess.
Why? Because Arteta will have to be judged on the short term and the long term.
In the short team, Arsenal have had some of their worst performances of the year, but found ways to win all about this most recent draw at Southampton meaning the damage has been little to none when it comes to the most fundamental measurement of success. Of course the short term effects don’t just stop at the matches that immediately follow a group stage match. If Arsenal continue to display leggy displays and drop points, Arteta will find himself under the microscope all the way up to the winter break.
But the real payoff of this plan lies in what it offers Arsenal later in the season. As it stands, Ajax, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Salzburg, Shaktar Donetsk, Sevilla, and Juventus are dropping down from the Champions League which would raise the competition of this year’s Europa League knockout rounds an immense amount. By winning the group, Arsenal not only avoid playing one of these teams in the round of 32, which they will skip, they don’t have to deal with an extra round of matches during a congested and shrouded time period following the World Cup.
If Arsenal can navigate these early days, and have this pay off on the back end by making a deep run in the Europa League and compete for top spots in the League — a title challenge would be incredible — Arteta will walk away feeling more than justified in his decision.
It’s a picture we really won’t see until much later, and by then it will be too late to change or there will be people eating their words, but for now, as fans that ride the waves game-by-game, it can be tough.
Keep the belief, see the long term vision, and see what happens next week; Arsenal need a single point to clinch their group a game early. If they can even do themselves the favor of being able to take that game off, I could stand as a large short-term benefit.
Expect a strong lineup, clinch the group, get the job done. Go Gunners!