Saturday, September 23, 2023

Slavia Prague preview: Keep the shotgun labelled ‘foot shooter’ locked away

After a disappointing first leg, Arsenal are in the Czech Republic this evening looking to be even just a little a bit better to ensure progression to the Europa League semi-finals.

1-0 would have been an ok result last week, but in injury time we took out our big old shotgun and shot ourselves in the foot, allowing Slavia Prague an equaliser which means we have to score at least once tonight to go through. Perhaps, if you’re looking for something positive to take from that, it provides some clarity as to what we need to do – but we could easily have just said ‘Let’s go there and win’ without letting one in at the Emirates.

The team news from yesterday has some good and bad. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were both in full training and are available. This is good. There was no sign of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Martin Odegaard. This is bad. Unless there’s some kind of smoke and mirrors obfuscation, with Mikel Arteta prohibiting Stuart and David from taking any pictures of the duo to throw Slavia off the scent, I think we have to go into this one assuming neither are going to be in the starting line-up. Perhaps one of them might be in the squad, but it appears unlikely they could play anything more than a bit-part role later on.

That means what we do up front is going to be relatively simple: Alexandre Lacazette will start after his two goals against Sheffield United. Very welcome goals they were too, especially after how poor he was in the first game. He’s a microcosm of the team in some ways, the quality of his performances can veer from very good (Sheffield United, West Ham), to very bad (Slavia, Sp*rs – although he did slot home an excellent penalty that day). We need him to be much more the former than the latter today.

There are obvious lessons to be learned from the first leg, but key among them is: if Lacazette is starting up front, make sure you surround him with players who can run. That means no Willian. On Sunday, Gabriel Martinelli did as much as anyone could expect to be rewarded with another start tonight. He was bright, positive, and scored a goal. I’d love to see him again this evening, although if Arteta went with Smith Rowe on the left, I wouldn’t mind at all – as Martinelli might give us a kind of useful goalscoring sub, particularly if Aubameyang doesn’t make the journey. We would then see Saka continue in the attacking midfield role, with Nicolas Pepe on the right.

There’s enough movement and running power there to complement Lacazette’s tendency to drop off, not to mention the fact that we know Slavia play with a high line, and our most dangerous moments in the first leg came when we got in behind. Our finishing wasn’t up to scratch, but those were the times we caused them the most problems. I think we need Granit Xhaka in midfield rather than at left-back, so I expect Cedric to play there again (hopefully he’s better than last week), and I’m interested to see who gets the nod between Gabriel and Pablo Mari. I suspect the Brazilian but I wouldn’t be shocked if Mari kept his place, he seems to work well with Holding (albeit the sample size is still quite small).

The other lesson from last week is that if it’s not working, we need to change things around more quickly. In a tie when we can use five subs, there’s no excuse for waiting so long to tweak something if it needs to be tweaked, and you can make wholesale changes if needs be too. There’s no shame in admitting something hasn’t worked from the start: being a manager isn’t just about picking a team, it’s about making use of all the players available to you during the 90 minutes.

As for how we approach it – without throwing caution to the wind from the first whistle, this is a game we have to try and take control of early. Too often this season we’ve allowed 45 minutes to pass us by, then we hope there’s a good teamtalk at the break that might make a difference. Sometimes that works, no doubt about it, but we stand a much better chance of going through if we play with genuine intent in both halves.

Bottom line: we have to score at least once tonight. If they score, it doesn’t change what we have to do (classic commentator trope right there), but obviously it increases the margin for error if we let them do that. I do think we have the attacking quality to score the goals we need tonight, and even last week when we played as poorly as we did, it’s a game we should have won. If we can keep that shotgun locked away, or at least pointed well away from our feet, we ought to have enough to beat Slavia Prague. You can’t take anything for granted with this club though, so [insert your own good luck ritual here].

As ever, we’ll have live blog coverage of the game for you this evening, and all the post-game stuff, player ratings and all the rest on Arseblog News. There’s a preview podcast for Patreon members here.

Catch you later for the game.

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