It’s Europa League action tonight. Something of a first too. We’ve never played in this competition before so it’s all new and different and on Thursdays.
With a big Premier League game against Chelsea on Sunday, the manager is – to use an old Irish saying – going to rotate the shite out of his team for this one. There were seven first team players who didn’t take part in yesterday’s training session, with Arsene Wenger confirming Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey would not be included because they played twice during the international break.
It’s expected that the likes of David Ospina, Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding, Mohamed Elneny, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud will all start, and I have a sneaky feeling that he might use this game to get some minutes into the legs of Alexis Sanchez. He’s got another week of training under his belt, but there’s nothing like playing games to get you really sharp, so I suspect he might give him an hour or so tonight – specifically to get him charged up for Stamford Bridge.
It’s easy to see how he can change things around up front, and in midfield – especially if he gives Jack Wilshere his first start since May 2016 – but at the back it’s a little more difficult. There are still some grey areas about who the back up wing-backs are at this point. There’s no obvious deputy on the right, and the obvious one on the left is usually part of the first choice back three.
Kieran Gibbs is gone, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who was used on both sides) is gone, Carl Jenkinson is gone, Calum Chambers isn’t quite ready yet, and Mathieu Debuchy has played just 16 minutes of football in the last 16 months so it’s hard to think he’d be anywhere near ready for 90 minutes of high-intensity work bombing up and down the right hand side.
So, does he stick with the first choice players, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac, hoping that there are no issues with fatigue this early in the season, or does he get creative and use some younger players? Both options are risky.
In the first case you don’t want anything to happen to either Bellerin or Kolasinac before a game as important as Chelsea; in the second the youngsters you might be using there are inexperienced, and in a couple of cases not natural defenders, so you weaken yourself in that regard.
Still, that’s why football managers get paid the big money to make the big decisions. The options if we go young include Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson on the right, and the promising Josh Dasilva on the left. We’ll just have to wait and see what Arsene Wenger decides.
As for our approach the tournament, the boss is viewing it on its own merits, and not simply a way into next season’s Champions League by the backdoor:
I think the best way to do it is via the Premier League. This is a different competition, we want to win every competition we play in but we don’t calculate that this is a way to qualify for the Champions League.
Which is fair enough. Try and win this, but also try and finish high enough in the league this season to qualify for the Champions League on our own merits. Obviously as the season progresses the priorities may shift somewhat depending on what’s going on, but right now I think that’s the right approach.
I don’t know a great deal about tonight’s opposition, but I’d be cautious of their position at the bottom of the Bundesliga. It’s still early days, and given that we’ll be a much different side from the one that played against Bournemouth there may well be some balance found there.
I have to say I’m kinda looking forward to it, not just because it’s different and not just because we’ll probably go through a European campaign without facing Bayern Munich or Barcelona. Many of the players tonight will have something to prove to the manager. They’ll want to be more involved week in, week out – whether that’s a seasoned pro who has found himself on the fringes, or a youngster being given a chance to impress.
Hopefully that’s reflected in their performances. Individually and collectively there should, at the very least, be plenty of enthusiasm for this one, and it’d be fun to see us play well and for those players to give Arsene Wenger something to think about.
For some extra reading, check out Tim Stillman’s column. This week’s it’s a rumination on formation. I’ll be back tomorrow, and there will be an Arsecast, just not first thing in the morning because of tonight’s game, hopefully around lunchtime for that one.
Catch you later for the game.