In his pre-game press conference, Mikel Arteta made it abundantly clear that he felt qualification for the next round of the Europa League was far from a sure thing. Even with a two goal lead and three away goals, he’s taking nothing for granted, particularly having seen his team buckle in the last 10 minutes of the North London derby against a Sp*rs team a man light.
Asked what they needed to differently tonight to manage the lead earned so well in Athens, he said:
“Everything different from what we did on Sunday against 10 men. We have to stop giving simple balls away, stop putting ourselves in trouble, give a clear direction of where we want to have the ball in those minutes. And play simple. And be sure that we win and manage the situation much better than we did.”
If some of what happened on Sunday was down to nerve, some was also down to fatigue, so it will be interesting to see what Arteta does with the team tonight. Fresh legs make sense, so we could see a clutch of changes. Hector Bellerin back in at right-back; a rest for Gabriel and David Luiz could mean starts for Rob Holding and Pablo Mari; and I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey get rotated out.
If it’s the former, he’s probably long overdue a chance to recharge his batteries, but whatever you think of Xhaka, he is the football equivalent of the Duracell bunny – he just keeps going. Maybe you give Partey the start, and do what we did in the last game and take him off after about an hour. Dani Ceballos and Mohamed Elneny will be waiting for their chances.
Nicolas Pepe surely has to start. Even if Bukayo Saka passes his fitness test, rest him anyway. Have him on the bench if you must, but that was a warning sign in the derby, and we need to be cautious – especially with an Interlull on the horizon during which many teams have a ludicrous three fixtures lined up. It’s little wonder Arteta called it ‘really dangerous‘.
As for who starts up front, you draw a solid line under the last few days if it’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. On Sunday and yesterday, Arteta said it was all ‘done’, everyone’s in a good place etc, so letting the skipper lead the line tonight would be absolutely definitive. My ideal scenario is that he responds in a positive way, gets a goal or two to help us on our way, and with 20 minutes left we’re in a situation where we can protect him for the visit to West Ham on Sunday.
Personally, I’d then love to see Gabriel Martinelli for the final stages of the game. He hasn’t played as much as we’d all like, something the manager acknowledged yesterday:
“He’s done everything perfectly, he trains incredibly well every day, and his attitude couldn’t be better.
“He’s really disappointed that he’s not playing more obviously, and I have spoken to him, but he needs to be a little bit patient. He had some minutes, he had some games as well, and it’s true that the competition for the front places is very tough.
“He needs to be patient, and he will get his chance.”
If we have a comfortable lead in this game, it makes all kinds of sense to give the young Brazilian some minutes up front. Remember, when we were 1-1 against Benfica, Arteta took off Aubameyang and put Martinelli on. He also started him against the likes of Man Utd and Chelsea, so while it’s frustrating for us to not see him more, I don’t buy into the idea that he’s a player the manager doesn’t like. I get the sense they’re trying to mould him into something slightly different, or fine-tune him to fit the system better, but it would still be good to see him later if the circumstances are right (or, perhaps, even if they’re not).
Last season Olympiacos came to the Emirates and inflicted painful defeat upon us. The game in Athens last week was just the first half, so let’s make sure we don’t anything to go wrong tonight. We have a good lead, but I don’t think we can just sit on it because one goal could start to jangle those nerves. Be positive, look for the goals we’re capable of scoring, and for once make life easy for ourselves. It’s not too much to ask, is it? We could even start to make a habit of that.
One step at a time though.
Catch you later for all that, and in the meantime there’s a Preview Pod for Patreon members here. For some extra reading this morning, Tim’s column this week asks if David Luiz should get one more year. Have a read, see what you think, even if your gut has already made its mind up (if such a thing can happen).
Until then, have a good one.