Playing at midday on Sunday feels really early to me, and I didn’t have to go to Greece on Thursday. Nor do I have to go to Leicester today.
Mikel Arteta says that Arsenal can’t use fatigue as any kind of excuse, which is fine, but it is a factor, and something the manager has to contend with when he picks his team today. Much of the focus of ‘rest’ has centred around Bukayo Saka and I can understand why. He’s been so good, and so important, but we’re all worried we’re going to ask too much of him.
After the first Benfica game the boss said we have to manage his minutes; after the game on Thursday he said Saka was ‘really fatigued’; so something has to give somewhere. Will it be today? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did sit this one out from the start, but nor would I be massively shocked to see him start. It’s such a tough one, and I do think a lot of it has to do with age. Granit Xhaka has, in recent weeks, played just as much and nobody’s worried about resting him to the same extent.
The thing with Saka is we have options. Nicolas Pepe could come into the team. People won’t want to hear it, and I’m one of them, but Willian could start. We have two very experienced players to take his place, and it’s not unreasonable to think they should be able to do a job. Pepe has been in and out of the team all season, there’s no issue with tiredness or fatigue, it’s simply down to whether or not we can elicit a performance from him on the right. Willian has spent his entire career playing in that position, and he did rediscover the positive impact of running when he came on against Benfica, so perhaps he could try a bit of that again.
At the same time though, if Arteta had doubts about both, who would blame him? If he thought our chances of winning were increased by starting Saka, who could argue? He got two assists on Thursday, and the five goals and five assists since that Chelsea game have been hugely important. There’s basically a week off between this game and the next one, so do you ask key players to make one more push and hope they can deliver while looking at that week as a way of recharging their batteries?
Thomas Partey could come back into midfield, assuming there are no ill-effects from his cameo on Greece, and that would make a big difference. I have a sneaky suspicion we might see Alexandre Lacazette start and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang used from the wing, so whether it’ll be Emile Smith Rowe or Martin Odegaard to link things in that area of the pitch remains to be seen. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised to see both centre-halves changed for Rob Holding and Pablo Mari, and while our full back options remain limited, the return of Cedric on either the right or the left wouldn’t shock me at all.
This is a difficult game, no doubt about it. It’s difficult anyway, but even more so given our European travels. Leicester too played in the Europa League, but their defeat came at home. And as good as they’ve been this season, if they do have a bit of a weakness it’s at the King Power. Five of their six defeats in the Premier League have come at home, so there’s something there for us if we can get going quickly.
Let’s keep fingers crossed we don’t feel those heavy legs too badly, and three points today would be very valuable indeed, even if some have nominally given up on what happens domestically. There’s still plenty to play for in the league, in my opinion.