Saturday, December 3, 2022

The corpse cat

Tonight’s game against Sheffield United is an interesting one for Mikel Arteta to consider. We all know the season hinges on Europe, but you can’t just throw in the towel domestically.

At the same time though, when you’re picking your team for this evening, you can’t ignore how important the trip to Prague is. There are some out there who would advocate for a team like: Ryan, Chambers, Holding, Mari, Cedric, Elneny, Ceballos, Willian, Nelson, Martinelli, Nketiah.

Rotate the absolute bollocks out of it to protect key players. Not that there were too many of them doing key things in the first leg, but still. What we can say is that this game is much less important, but it still matters. Even those who would say we need to put all our eggs into the Europa League basket wouldn’t countenance a bad result tonight. Sheffield United are bottom of the league, they’ve lost seven of their last eight in the Premier League, and if Arsenal were to go down, it’d be – rightly – another black mark against the manager.

Then again, if he plays someone we consider important who then picks up an injury, he’s going to be crucified for that decision too. I suppose this is the consequence of being where we are in the table, and putting ourselves in this position. If we were scrapping for top four, you play a strong team because the points are important and everyone understands that. Now? What’s the difference between 8th or 10th bar some end of season prize money? Our Premier League under-performance has us doing these kind of mental gymnastics.

If you go really ‘weak’ tonight, you’ve told everyone – including your players – that the Premier League games don’t matter at all. Lose on Thursday, and your season becomes something akin to Pet Cemetery.

“Oh no, the cat is dead. Oh look, the cat has come back to life and I really want to love it again but it’s all decomposed and a mole ate one of its eyes!”

We don’t need the final weeks of the season to be a corpse cat. Which is to say, I have some sympathy with whatever Arteta decides to do today, but then this a scenario that is a mix of success (Europa League progress), and failure (12 games lost already in the Premier League). It’s an unpleasant cocktail of his own making.

Official team news is that Emile Smith Rowe is out with an ankle injury. He went over on it in the first half on Thursday, so fingers crossed it’s not too serious. Unofficial team news dropped last night with David Ornstein reporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang misses out with ‘flu’.

Flu sounds so unbelievable it’s actually verging on credible. There are all kinds of little niggles that can keep a player out of a game: a calf strain, a groin issue, a ‘back injury’, so this does seem a little weird. I’d just say it depends on where the information came from – whether it’s a back channel update from the club, or something which came from the player’s side. It will be interesting to see what Mikel Arteta says about it later, and at the moment it is hard not to be worried about what’s going on with the captain.

The question is, who plays up front today. I’ll be honest, there’s a very large part of me which doesn’t want to see Alexandre Lacazette on Thursday, so then play him today, but I’d also be keen for Gabriel Martinelli to be given a go. Arteta spoke to Sky Sports about him ahead of the game, and referenced his lack of playing time, saying:

I understand. We have to be a little bit patient with him but he has a bright future at the club and he will have all the opportunities that he needs to show us how good he is and the career he can have with us.

Surely today, and what remains of this Premier League season, is that kind of opportunity. You know everything there is to know about the players who haven’t done enough, so why not use these games as a way to give playing time to younger players ahead of next season? Martinelli is the obvious one, but if – and I realise this will force you to stretch your imagination to breaking point – we find ourselves in a comfortable position in a game, why don’t we give Miguel Azeez the 15 minutes in midfield that would otherwise go to Dani Ceballos or Mohamed Elneny? Let’s see some minutes for Flo Balogun.

Arteta’s job is to get results, but it’s clear that if they are to improve next season with him in charge, he’s going to need different personnel. The same reliance on the same disappointments is frustrating for fans, and while things like this won’t make it all perfect, it would at least show some vision for the future.

Anyway, that aside, let’s just hope for an uncomplicated game later. A win with no injury scares would be perfect, and then we can get onto the serious business of what we have to do in Prague on Thursday. I know we don’t really do uncomplicated that often, but today would be a very good day for it.

Patreon preview podcast here – catch you later for the game.

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