Arsenal travel to Greece today ahead of tomorrow evening’s Europa League clash with Olympiacos. A few days ago you’d have said that this competition would probably have been our highest priority this season, but in the wake of the Man City story, that has changed a bit.
I wonder will it have given Mikel Arteta pause for thought too. I kind of doubt it. While I think he’ll have to manage his squad carefully now that the hectic Thursday > Sunday > Thursday etc schedule is kicking in, he’ll have looked at the two upcoming fixtures and and made a plan already about how to approach the games. If we make progress in Europe, and/or win games domestically which see us creep up the league table, he may reach a point where he has to start prioritising, but for now I reckon he’s doing it game by game.
The team selection tomorrow will be informative, and when I talk about squad management, an area that stands out for me is right back. Hector Bellerin has looked a lot more like his old self in the last few games. There’s still a way to go having suffered an ACL injury just over a year ago, but he looks fitter and stronger than he did when he first returned. All the same, managing a player’s fitness after such a long-time out is crucial, and it doesn’t seem wise/sensible to play him three times in a week.
Our schedule looks like this:
Thursday: Olympiacos (A)
Sunday: Everton (H)
Thursday: Olympiacos (H)
Monday: Portsmouth (A) FA Cup
After that it’s West Ham at home the following weekend, so if Bellerin was to miss the Portsmouth game after playing in the second leg, it’d give him a rest of around 9 days, which seems decent. The issue is whether or not there’s a risk in him playing in four successive games up to that point.
Clearly the addition of Cedric Soares on loan was to give the manager an experienced option at right-back to ease the burden on Bellerin; but it also raises question marks about Ainsley Maitland-Niles. We know he’s publicly said he doesn’t want to be a right back, but under Arteta he performed well in that position in that opening period of the new manager’s reign, but since then his involvement has been increasingly limited.
He hasn’t been in the squad for the last two league games, and in the FA Cup tie against Bournemouth came off the bench in the 89th minute. There’s been no report of an injury, so on that basis it just feels like Arteta doesn’t rate him as highly as he does others in the squad. I do think his versatility is useful. Take the Saka injury at Burnley, for example. Maitland-Niles’ presence in the squad might have given us a better balanced change to make, but perhaps that’s an issue of hindsight.
It would also seem a bit strange for a player who hasn’t been selected at all in recent weeks to be brought back into the squad for a key European away game, so it looks as if we’ll be asking Bellerin to play Thursday. With Everton a team we need to take points of domestically in our next fixture, you want as strong a team as possible, so that probably means Hector starts again. Depending on what happens in the first leg in Greece, there might be wiggle room to play a rotated side in the second, but it’s still a lot to ask of a player who needs to be managed carefully.
Look at what’s happening with Rob Holding. No two cases are ever the same, but there’s no question his current fitness issues are a legacy from his own ACL rupture. We know for a fact that over-burdening a player who is coming back from that particular injury runs the risk of suffering it again, or another ancillary problem. Of course Arteta will have all the necessary information from the player, the fitness staff and all the rest, but while Thursday’s game wouldn’t worry me too much, playing Bellerin again on Sunday would make me a little anxious if that’s what we did.
As for Maitland-Niles, it doesn’t look particularly promising for him right now, but it’s worth considering how quickly things can appear to change. It wasn’t long ago that Dani Ceballos was being compared to last season’s unfortunate Spanish loanee Denis Suarez. One good performance later and people are asking whether or not we should stump up the €30m that Real Madrid want for him.
His return came because, as Arteta said, ‘he completely changed his behaviour’. That’s not to say that Maitland-Niles is doing anything wrong, or not training well, there’s no evidence of that whatsoever, but it does show that the manager will reward effort and commitment on the training field. It means that even if you’re left out in the cold – and with a fairly large squad now that’s going to be a harsh reality for some players to deal with – the door remains open rather than closed in your face.
Whether he can force himself into the reckoning again, or whether he’s seen as a credible alternative to Hector until such time as Cedric recovers sufficiently from his knee injury, remains to be seen, but the next few weeks should give us a reasonable clue.
Righto, that’s your lot for this morning. Pre-game coverage of Olympiacos, squad info, press conference stuff and more over on Arseblog News throughout the day. More from me here tomorrow.