Thursday, June 20, 2024

Europa League build-up: Smith Rowe and Pepe

We have Europa League action tomorrow, and somewhat unusually, the team flew out yesterday, an extra day in advance.

The normal run of things sees them go the day before the game, but I don’t know why things are different this time around. Perhaps Mikel Arteta feels a change of scenery might be a good thing for some of the players? Perhaps there are issues with flights? I don’t know. I don’t suppose it really matters too much.

Of more interest was the inclusion of some young players in the travelling party. The likes of Emile Smith Rowe, fellow midfielders Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez, and striker Folarin Balogun have all made the trip. It doesn’t necessarily suggest they’ll be starting, because the Europa League allows five subs and for our previous group stage games we’ve named a twelve man bench. Nevertheless, those extra changes give them a greater chance of involvement, and right now I think we’re all keen to see what some of these young players can do – even within the context of this tournament and the opposition we’re facing.

Smith Rowe is particularly interesting. At a time when midfield is not working with the personnel we have, a player who has the ability to add something different has to be worth greater consideration. So far his lack of involvement this season has been down to injury, but he’s had recent some run-outs with the U23s, scored some goals, and the next step is some Europa League action.

He’s had some bad luck with injuries and now really needs to stay fit. His loan move to Germany was probably a good experience on a personal level, but he barely played because of a groin/hip problem. He had a good spell at Huddersfield, but missed the start of this season because of a shoulder problem. So much of a player’s career is about timing, and so far at Arsenal it’s like the fates have conspired against him, but fingers crossed he can start on Thursday and kick on from there.

I was looking at the UEFA website and saw this in the pre-game stuff about Molde:

Arsenal’s win on Matchday 3 was their 26th in the UEFA Europa League, group stage to final, the most in the competition by an English club – two more than local rivals Tottenham.

Isn’t that a wonderful record to have?! It does say something about where we are right now though, and the decline that has been ongoing for a number of years. We all want to be back in the Champions League, but we’re a long way from being the kind of team that would cruise through the group stages like we used to. This is a weird season, I genuinely think there are going to be lots of points dropped by lots of teams which could give us the chance to finish higher than we think we’re going to right now – assuming that we can find some measure of consistency.

It’s hard to be confident about that, but it’s easier to envisage this team making progress in the Europa League though. We have the feel of a cup team to us at this moment in time, and in those kind of games we’ve proven ourselves more than capable. I don’t mean in the early part of this competition, but as we get to the knock-out rounds I think I’d feel more confident about us coming through those games than any Premier League fixture. Hopefully we can be good in both, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ve seen Nicolas Pepe’s apology for his red card against Leeds, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’s involved on Thursday. On the one hand, starting a player after doing something that daft feels a bit counter-intuitive, but he’s going to miss our next three Premier League games anyway – that is his punishment. He’s not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last Arsenal player to get sent off for doing something stupid, and I think we need to think very carefully about how we manage him in the wake of this.

You could quite easily make a very convincing argument that an experienced player taking a 7 hour flight to Dubai, and a 7 hour flight back, then having to be taken off at half-time because of a muscular problem is considerably more stupid than someone temporarily losing their cool in the heat of a football match. Certainly if I were a manager I know which player I’d be more pissed off at.

I have plenty of frustrations with Pepe but, with all due respect to our group stage opponents, he’s a cut above Europa League group stage level. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t play, but if you’re looking for a way for him to redeem himself on the pitch and rebuild some of his confidence, it makes a lot of sense to play him. Quite what his long-term future holds is anybody’s guess, but having tanked the value of far too many players in the recent past, we have to at least try and maintain some in a player who cost us £72m and on whom we still have a number of installments still to make.

It really doesn’t feel like he and Mikel Arteta are on the same wavelength, we can see that with how he’s being used. It could be some ‘tough love’ from the manager, who is trying to get more out of him by challenging him to react to being dropped for a Chelsea cast-off, or it just might never work and he’s someone who won’t ever be a regular starter for us. Whichever one it is though, decisions have to be made for the benefit of the football club in general, and our finances. Even good Europa League performances will help keep his transfer value higher and maintain some interest in him from elsewhere. Casting him off because he did something admittedly silly during a game is no good for anyone.

Right, that’s your lot for this morning. Back tomorrow with a full preview of the Molde game, and we’ll have any news throughout the day on Arseblog News.

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