Gunner Thoughts

Is It Just Me or Is It Really Hard to Focus on Europe?

Arsenal haven’t had a lot of European success which should mean I really want to see them commander this event, but… it’s hard to.

Arsenal are set for their second leg versus Sporting Lisbon with the score level at 2-2 on aggregate. It’s far from the worst scoreline you can have going into a second leg — ask Liverpool — but the whole competition this season has felt dulled. Which is a bizarre thing to say as an Arsenal fan.

I know the Europa League doesn’t carry the same gravitas as the Champions League, but European success is something that has evaded this club. It’s the reason that even with Arsenal in the Europa League these last years, we’ve all wanted them to pursue it with fervor — that and the auto-acceptance back into Champions League football that comes with it.

I should want this, right? Badly?

Yet here we are, with the best team and, arguably, chance at lifting the cup and my gut reaction is, “oooooo how can we rotate the squad and not play our best lineup”.

It feels crazy! It almost feels wrong. Football is about chasing cups and hunting every piece of silverware you can, but with the mere opportunity to win the league this season, it’s near impossible to not favorite the domestic competition.

My favorite statement is when people ask, “would you give up the Europa League for a Premier League title”.

  1. Yes, duh, of course. No one is an idiot
  2. But, there is no guarantee of that either?

It’s not as if there’s a universe in which we respectfully bow out of the Europa League “to save legs” and therefore just waltz our way through the final eleven matches.

In his press conference yesterday, Arteta was asked whether the Europa League was a distraction. He said, ‘No. We haven’t had big European nights for three years due to COVID especially. Tomorrow is probably the first one that we’ve had for a while and hopefully, we’ll build a really good atmosphere and enjoy it.”

“Our supporters will be there against a really good team that is going to put a big challenge in front of us.”

Which, whether we are fully onboard with it or caught up in fictitious wishful dilemmas, is probably the correct way to view this whole situation. You win the games that are in front of you, figure the rest out later.

In many ways, this is a core belief to Arteta’s identity. Winning is a habit, it’s something you maintain, therefore you go out and win.

“We’re looking to win,” he said. “That was the same when we were in Lisbon, but we’re gonna have to do better than we did in Lisbon to win against Sporting tomorrow.”

The response likely affirms two things for us:

  1. It affirms Arteta’s belief that this isn’t a competition he will willingly sacrifice in the name of a Premier League campaign
  2. It probably means Arsenal’s lineup will look strong once again, and potentially stronger than it did in the first leg

After the first leg, I found it really interesting that people believed Arsenal’s lineup was “strong” or even “too strong”, in the face of 6 changes and 2 position changes.

If a lineup can make that many changes and still be “too strong”, perhaps Arsenal have gone and built themselves a deeper side than we even realized, between the group stages and the knockout stages.

It was a strong team. It was a competitive team. It also looked and played like a rotated side. I think thats a positive sign, although the performance could have been cleaner. We should feel like our “B-team” is filled with quality players. And besides leaving Saka on for 90 minutes, the lineup looked a lot like I had expected it to.

It also looks a lot like I expected today’s lineup to look.

Arsenal have Sporting today, Crystal Palace at home this Sunday, and then the international break. Conceivably, that means Arteta feels a little more comfortable playing his players within the 60/30, starters/subs method we have seen all competition.

To me, that’s a lineup that looks something like one of these two:

That probably leaves people wondering, “where’s Tomiyasu, where’s Tierney”, and those are fair questions. I wouldn’t mind if either of those two were given the start, but something in me believes Arteta is out to win this leg and add more European experience to his resume.

Again, that’s not to say Arsenal can’t win with those two in, but after five substitutions were made versus Fulham, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Arteta go strong with his lineup.

These are the knockout stages and I think Arteta will treat them as such – to some degree, at least.

The whole competition has been filled with performances that follow a similar recipe:

  • Arsenal play a strong but rotated team
  • The performance lacks energy and is sloppier than the usual levels we are seen
  • Arsenal still manage to get the result (more or less)
  • Fans declare it a mistake to play these players that are “clearly fatigued”
  • A few days later, Arsenal’s level of play are outstanding when they return to PL action

Arteta on the step-up against Fulham after disappointment in Lisbon…

Yeah, it was a big difference. The desire to win the ball back, the aggression that we showed, and how we defended the boxes. 

It’s not the most comforting way to go about these things, but it seems like the way this Arsenal side are and will move forward. So forward we shall go.

Expect a stronger side but 4-6 changes from the Premier League side we saw beat Fulham. And while it’s impossible not to be looking ahead to Crystal Palace — and City’s match with Liverpool — I doubt we will see Arsenal concede this competition in the name of fresh legs.

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