Tomorrow night’s Europa League encounter with Vorskla Poltava was already going to feel somewhat surreal. Arsenal travelling 350km east of Kyiv to play a fringe team in temperatures of around -13 was strange enough, but the fact that the team and the few dedicated fans were going to be heading into a country that had just declared martial law added an extra element to that.
Now, it’s going to be even more strange as last night UEFA made an announcement that the game is to be moved from the city of Poltava and will instead be played in the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv. In a statement released yesterday evening, they said:
“The emergency panel has today taken the decision to relocate FC Vorskla’s Europa League group stage match against Arsenal from the city of Poltava, following the introduction of martial law into certain regions in Ukraine.
“Uefa will continue to monitor and assess the security situation in Ukraine in the coming days before making any decision on potentially relocating other matches.”
In terms of what it means for the team, it removes a four hour road journey from the equation, which must make life a bit easier. Not so for fans who will have booked accommodation etc, and one would hope that some assistance or recompense will be made having changed the venue less than 48 hours before the game. As for the match itself, Vorskla’s home stadium has a capacity of under 25,000 and undoubtedly the move to Kyiv will affect the number of fans who will be able/willing to attend. So, even when you add in the pocket of Arsenal fans to the mix, the 70,000 capacity ground in Kiev is likely to be a long way from full. Not quite a game behind closed doors, but not too far off it.
A 17.55 kick off, a mostly empty stadium, and a team made up of squad players and youth prospects is going to make this a bit of a strange one. Of course I’m making the assumption that the relative ease of travel to Kyiv rather than Poltava won’t shift Unai Emery’s thinking too much when it comes to the players he brings with him, although it might just allow him to take a couple of extra senior men for assurance should he need it.
However, with a North London derby on Sunday followed by a trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday, I’d be very surprised if anyone who is going to play in those two games was involved tomorrow night. If that means delving far deeper into the academy than normal, so be it. We’ve already qualified for the knock-out stages and as much as topping the group would be welcome, I don’t think it’s as significant in this tournament than in the Champions League. It would be foolish to play anyone considered vital for the Premier League games, and our last game in this competition showed the need for caution with Danny Welbeck picking up a serious injury while Stephan Lichtsteiner pulled his hamstring.
We can preview the game properly tomorrow, we should have an idea of the travelling squad later today and we can bring you that news over on Arseblog News as an when we have it.
Meanwhile, there’s some interesting stuff on the official website from Emery about the mindset he wants the players to have when it comes to training. He says:
One of the first things we looked at with the players was the idea of training for training’s sake, training to compete and training to win. Those are three different steps and very often players do them subconsciously.
We needed to suppress the idea of training for training’s sake, boost the focus on training to compete and – most of all – train to win. Training to win is the final competitive step, and that was what was most required in terms of individual development and the development of the team.
I don’t necessarily read this as criticism of what came before, but when you’ve had a manager at a club for 22 years, whose sessions were famously regimented with a stopwatch down the last second, then I guess subconsciously players can end up going through the motions a little bit. The same sessions day after day it’s inevitable. The proliferation of training ground videos since the Spaniard’s arrival may well be because he’s more open to giving us a glimpse behind the curtain, but maybe there’s more to see because of the variety he’s brought in and the fact that training is more intense and demanding.
There was also another very interesting line about how what he sees in training impacts on his team selection:
The players that play the most are the ones that seem to have the most scope for development.
Before talking about Granit Xhaka specifically:
The first thing was to find his best position and characteristics, but he also wants to improve and that’s the first step – that the players want it.
He says he believes that all the players want to develop and have the potential to do so, but you can’t help but wonder if some of the decisions he’s made that we’ve all tried to figure out are based on what he’s seeing every day at London Colney. Now that I type that out, it seems self-evident. He’s worked with Mesut Ozil for some months now, and has decided that certain games are not suitable for him, preferring more physically disciplined options over the technical and creative one. No doubt there will be games when the opposite is true, but unquestionably the attitude of the players on the training ground is playing a part.
I know Xhaka has his moments but I think in general he has improved this season, the same goes for Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi, as well as Alexandre Lacazette. Bernd Leno wasn’t considered for a first team start until Petr Cech got injured but has obviously been working hard at training and when his chance came he took it with both hands. It’s not going to be true of everyone, of course, Emery would have to be a miracle worker to improve some members of this squad but surely this is all part of his remit: see who develops and gets better, and those who don’t can be moved on and replaced.
As I’ve said before, he needs two or three transfer windows before we can really make definitive judgements about what he’s doing. The limits of certain personnel can only be fixed by moving them on and bringing other players in who will, hopefully, enable him to make the improvements necessary. Until then, he has what he holds and he’s got to try and make the best of it – which isn’t always going to be easy.
Right, that’s your lot for this morning. I should point out that we’ve got a brand new episode of My Arse for Arseblog Members on Patreon, in which I chat to comedian Dara O Briain about his life and times as an Arsenal fan. To access that instantly, along with all the other content we’ve got on there, sign up at https://patreon.com/arseblog for just €5 per month (+VAT in the EU). It also helps support everything else we do on the site, and we really appreciate everyone who is on board already.
Till tomorrow for some more strange Europa League stuff. Until then.