As expected Unai Emery’s squad for tonight’s Europa League game with FC Vorskla is made up of players on the fringes of his ‘first’ team, and fleshed out by youngsters from the academy – full list here. The selection isn’t to disrespect the opposition, or even the competition itself, but down the fact that we have a North London derby on Sunday followed by a trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday. It’s pure pragmatism and common sense.
Taking anyone he was planning on picking for Sunday in particular would have been risky, although the presence of Rob Holding in the travelling party sticks out for me a little. Maybe it’s because he’s 22 and capable of playing without experiencing the fatigue felt by more experienced players, but he’s been performing well and for many would be good option for the Sp*rs game. He also sticks out because he’s basically the only established centre-half in the squad. We do have 18 year Zech Medley in the squad but there’s some doubt as to whether or not he’s eligible.
Clubs can use an unlimited number of players from the ‘B-list’ (basically academy players), but on the proviso that: he has been eligible to play for the club concerned for any uninterrupted period of two years since his 15th birthday. Any submissions to the list must be made no later than midnight the day before a match. From what I can see, Medley was announced as an Arsenal player on December 6th, having signed from Chelsea, so leaves him just outside the limit. Arsenal are insisting he’s eligible if selected, so perhaps there’s a difference between the date he signed a contract and the date it was made public. And anyway, why would you bring a player you can’t use?
Even so, he might keep the young man in reserve as he explores other options. He could use Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back and push the experienced Stephan Lichtsteiner alongside Holding, or move Mohamed Elneny back – a job he’s done before but mostly in a back three – because he does have plenty of midfielders in the squad. Maitland-Niles could play at left-back too if required, although Carl Jenkinson was selected there in our last European game.
He can choose a midfield duo of Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock/Maitland-Niles (Mr Versatile), with Aaron Ramsey, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Emile Smith Rowe further forward and a very welcome start up front for Eddie Nketiah who was denied the chance to come on against Sporting due to Lichtsteiner’s hamstring injury. Whatever team he selects though, it’s going to be a strange game played in a really strange atmosphere.
As late as yesterday evening Vorskla were casting doubt on their own participation due to the change of venue, saying they’d heard nothing about ticket sales and so on from the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv. In the end they got in their team bus and made the trip from Poltava but it remains to be seen how many of their fans will make the journey too. You can understand that they feel somewhat disgruntled by the whole thing, with home advantage taken away from them, and the practicalities of it all mean that a large stadium is going to be empty for the most part and we’ll probably get that thing where you can hear player’s shouts echoing around the ground. What’s the Ukrainian for ‘man on?’
With qualification for the knockout stages secured, it would be nice to top the group and to see some of the young players take their chance in a game like this, but the reality is that it’s impossible not to feel like the shadow of the Premier League looming over us. The distant eye of Sauron watching from over the horizon as we prepare to face the homeless goblins and then travel to Mourinho’s Man United a few days later.
I think Emery’s squad selections for the earlier Europa League games were made knowing fine well we had this difficult quirk of the fixture list to contend with. Get the points, qualify for the knock-out stages, and then rotate the bollix out of the squad to keep as many players as fresh as possible for the two massive games in three days. Whatever happens tonight has be viewed in that context, so que sera, sera, but there are some very bright talents coming through the Arsenal academy at the moment so let’s hope they can shine and make tonight an interesting one.
Just a couple of quick things to finish off with today. If you’re a regular reader or listener to the podcast, you’ll be aware that under Arsene Wenger we had a goalkeeping coach who we could certainly have improved upon. In this extraordinary video, two former Arsenal keepers, Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski, make it quite clear what they thought of him as they tell a couple of tales from their time at the club. In some ways it’s sad, because both have since left the club and gone on to improve significantly, and while you can’t dismiss their own roles in their development, it’s obvious that if we’d had paid more attention to this particular area then they might have made that improvement with us.
Wenger was always loyal to his staff, loyal to a fault you might say, and even when he had the chance to go in a different direction – signing that new deal after the 2017 FA Cup final win – Peyton was retained when his methods were so far behind the best modern goalkeeping coaches. Interestingly, one of the coaches who helped Fabianski was Javi Garcia who has come on board with Emery, but spent a year at Swansea after the the Polish international moved there in 2014. The importance of good coaching, even for a player as experienced as Petr Cech, is made obvious by his performances this season before his injury, so imagine how easily a young player still learning his trade can so easily stagnate and/or go backwards.
And for some extra reading this morning, especially relevant when you consider tonight’s squad, is how Arsenal are going to have to focus on youth as we look to rebuild the squad in the medium-long term under the new coach. Tim Stillman expands on that here.
Right, that’s your lot for now, catch you later for the game.