There may be nothing more embedded into the Arsenal way than stressing every fan out, doing things the hard way, and waiting until the last opportunities to put it all together. I mean, look no further than one of our iconic title winning season — could Arsenal have made it more difficult on themselves in ’89? No, I don’t think so.
And while it feels entirely foolish to compare today’s Europa League group stage clash with winning a title at Anfield — this fact is not lost on me one bit — Arsenal have waited until the final matchup to clinch first place in Group A. They had hoped to be able to seal their status as group winner with a game to spare, but after falling flat against PSV Eindhohen away from home, there is work left to do.
Fortunately for the Gunners, the task ahead of them pales in comparison to beating Liverpool in the late 80’s by a score of two to nil. They also won’t be lining up agains the team in second place, as they did in ’89, but against bottom of the group side FC Zurich, at The Emirates.
Arsenal already beat FC Zurich in the away leg during these stages, 1-2, but Zurich will feel they have plenty to play for. As the group stands, every single team has something on the line:
All eyes will be on the top of the table with PSV Eindhoven and Arsenal compete to claim first place. Arsenal need a win to keep their fate in their hands. If they lose or draw, and PSV beat Bodø/Glimt, Arsenal will fall to second place. At the bottom of the table, FC Zurich need a win or a draw plus a 7-0 PSV Eindhoven win to drop to the Europa Conference League. Those chances are slim, but Zurich having a slim hope to play for is still more difficult than one already resigned to exiting European competition.
From an Arsenal perspective, and a view that many fans will have, none of that should matter. Arsenal are home, they have everything to play for, Arteta has put a lot of eggs into the basket of winning the group and being off until March, and it’s time to execute that plan and win. The team has reset from their lull of performances in the second half of October, and the hero we all expected to rise to the occasion did — Reiss Nelson.
All jokes aside, it was a marvelous performance from Reiss to claim 2 goals and an assist, but it was also a comprehensive display from the team as a whole to mark a return of the level of play Arsenal have shown they can play at. It was fluid, devastating, dynamic, controlling, at times wasteful, but any time you notch five goals in a Premier League win it’s a great victory. Arsenal are back at home and with the idea of finishing this first half of the season out in style on everybody’s mind, confidence should be high.
Chelsea may loom at the weekend, but I doubt that will weigh too heavy on Arteta’s mind. The last time Arsenal played FC Zurich, Arteta selected a lineup that would be, arguably, the weakest of the whole group stages. Even then, it wasn’t that much more rotated than stronger lineups we have seen since.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see many of these names in the starting eleven tomorrow, with a few changes. Given that Arteta started Ramsdale against PSV last week, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him stick with that switch given the stakes at play. Additionally, we saw the inclusion of Martin Ødegaard and Saliba. Saliba and Gabriel seem to be rotating almost every match, and I’d give it an honest 50/50 on whether Ødegaard is played or rested ahead of Chelsea. If I had to guess, Arsenal’s lineup will be:
Honestly, it’s a little tough to guess how strong Arteta is going to go. His plan for the season, at least for resting very few legs during October’s onslaught, was built around the reward of bonus rest that Arsenal would get in the second half of the year. It was the idea that risking fatigue in October when the games were heavier, would pay off in January, February, March, and beyond, when Arsenal didn’t have to worry about an extra knockout round in February.
In the second half of the year, many top clubs will have players returning from the World Cup, and every club will have players who have been “off” for a month of winter break. Teams will practice, there are friendlies scheduled, but the second half of this Premier League season stands to feel a lot more like a standalone season with a month-long preseason than a short holiday break, which means it’s all shrouded in mystery.
Who knows how players will bounce back from the World Cup, who knows if the team will recapture form, who knows if anyone will be carrying injuries — short or long term. The idea of being able to postpone significant knockout matches for as long as in your control, it a tempting gift. And it’s one Arsenal will claim by winning the groups.
In his press conference Arteta stated that he doesn’t have any concerns about Bukayo Saka who was, quite literally, kicked out of the game and forced to exit with an ankle injury. Personally, I hope tomorrow he has a spot on the bench at most and is given that ability to rest from his starting duties ahead of Sunday, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Arteta feels differently. See paragraphs above on World Cup and mystery second half of season.
Arteta has selected strong lineups, the last match being the strongest we had seen to date in this completion, and I can’t see him rotating to a side that is weaker than we have seen when everything is on the line. With that in mind, you can expect strong, the question will be “how strong”.
In the past I have written that Arteta’s decisions here will be judged in the short team and long term. After reclaiming form emphatically, the short term judgement is in place to be viewed kindly, although the work is incomplete. The long term judgement will be determined in the coming months, but greatly dictated by this result against Zurich. Arteta’s plan is on the line — it’s up for grabs now.