Arsenal are in Greece to face Olympiacos in the Europa League Round of 16. Of course, we faced them
at this stage last season (update: It was Round of 32, sorry), and came back from the first leg with an away goal after Alexandre Lacazette’s late strike gave us a 1-0 win.
It’s quite funny to look back at that game and note that Sokratis started at right back, both Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi played, and Gabriel Martinelli was used on the left with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the right. My recollection is that it wasn’t exactly a stellar performance, but a decent win.
At his press conference yesterday, Mikel Arteta insisted that we’ve made progress since then, saying:
I think we are a better team than we were last year. Looking back at the two games that we played and the way we are playing now, I think we have come a long way.
And there was a hint that the defeat in the second leg, conceding a late goal which was compounded by an extraordinary Aubameyang miss, still rankles:
We have some feelings towards that team and we want to put it right in the next round.
It’s fine to harbour some ‘feelings’, but we won’t win this game, or this tie, just because we are browned off at what happened over 12 months ago. So much has happened since, and yet that flaw we still have of clutching a bad defeat from the jaws of a decent one is still on display. I do think that the squad we have going into these games is stronger, with more options – especially from an attacking perspective – but you won’t convince anyone you’re better unless you get the result.
It looks like we have a fairly clean bill of health for this one. Over the last few weeks we’ve managed to give almost everyone who needed some time off a bit of a rest; some have got plenty in their legs because they haven’t played a huge amount anyway; so it’ll be interesting to see what Arteta does this evening. When he thinks about his side for this game, it’s going to be very difficult not to see the derby popping up on the horizon, but that’s what he’s going to have to deal with.
I wonder, when it comes to midfield, if he might just think tonight is the night to give Granit Xhaka a break. Not because of his mistake against Burnley, it’s clear that Arteta’s faith in the Swiss international is strong. You don’t play as often for this manager if he has doubts about you, that’s evident, so if he does sit this one out, it shouldn’t be viewed as punishment, per se. However, he has played a lot of late, almost every minute of every game since he returned from his previous Burnley blunder, and perhaps there was an element of fatigue to his decision making which brought about that error (which isn’t to excuse it).
Thomas Partey was taken off at the weekend, those 12 minutes of action we saved him from were to protect him for this game, and he could easily partner Dani Ceballos if that’s what the manager was minded to do. Remember, he helped Mohamed Elneny look great when we went to Old Trafford so depending on what he expects from the home side this evening, Arteta could change things around.
Up front, it’s impossible to look beyond Bukayo Saka on the right, and a somewhat rejuvenated Aubameyang up front. The captain drew praise from the manager, who said:
“In big moments, you’re going to have the need for big players performing and making the difference. It looks like in this moment, he is firing, he’s happy.
“Physically, he’s in a good moment and he’s full of confidence. It’s a good moment for him and the team.”
Who plays from the left is $64,000 question. Willian was decent against Leicester, a bit less so against Burnley, and while it’s not his most natural position, I’d like to see more of Nicolas Pepe. When you look at those final 15 minutes at the weekend, he was involved in a lot of the incidents which could have won us the game, and it also shows us that Saka nominally playing from the left doesn’t decrease his creativity (although quite how it impacts his goal threat is another conversation).
The fact we can use five subs tonight is also a way for Arteta to influence the game. It’s an area of management in which it’s really clear that experience is important, and it’s something he’s still trying to get right more often than not. However, regardless of the team he picks, he’s going to have options from the bench who can add things to areas of the pitch where we can hopefully hurt the opposition. It looks as if Emile Smith Rowe is back with the squad, and if we need goals having him, Martinelli, strikers like Lacazette and perhaps Nketiah, and even Pepe if he continues to pick Willian do give a lot to choose from.
Arteta says we’re better, tonight we have to go out and prove it. Not just with the performance, but with the result too.
There’s a preview podcast available now for Patreon members – and I’ll catch you later on for the game.