After two away games, and two away defeats, it’s a Saturday 3pm home game, against a team we ‘should’ be capable of beating. Just what you’d want from the fixture list.
‘Should’ is a doing a lot of work here. As frustrating as the games against Man Utd and Everton were, we should have taken something from both of them (I mean, that’s why they we so frustrating, right?), but we contrived to come away from both with absolutely nothing, and of course that’s a worry because you start to fear it might become a habit.
Today’s team news is that Emile Smith Rowe returns, which is a positive given he’s our leading scorer in the Premier League this season, while Gabriel Martinelli is fit and available having come off at Old Trafford with a niggle. The big issue though is the absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who wasn’t seen in the training pictures, and yesterday evening Charles Watts reported he’d be absent today:
Aubameyang set to miss tomorrow's game after missing training today.
Full story 👇https://t.co/sr9DqchtNk
— Charles Watts (@charles_watts) December 10, 2021
Having been dropped for the Everton game, then overlooked by Mikel Arteta for Eddie Nketiah when he was making changes, it would be very easy to think there’s something going on. I’m cautious because we’ve had incidents in the past where a player’s absence sparks conspiracies and turns out to be something else entirely. There was one with Reiss Nelson last season (he was injured), and people didn’t believe Aubameyang himself had ‘flu’ earlier this year, but it turned out to be malaria. So, until we get more information about the situation, comment on the nuts and bolts of it can wait.
What we have to deal with today is his replacement. On the Patreon preview podcast (recorded before this news yesterday), I said to Lewis that I wouldn’t be surprised if Eddie Nketiah started up front, and I’d be even less so now. Alexandre Lacazette started against Everton and just wasn’t good, so it seems that the next option on the manager’s pecking order is Eddie.
He spoke about him in his press conference yesterday, explaining that the 22 year old’s motivation for turning down a contract from Arsenal was because he wanted to play more regularly. Which is perfectly understandable. He then seemed to suggest that his departure in the summer – or even in January – wasn’t as inevitable as we all seem to think:
“Eddie has six months left on his contract and we are having discussions with him and the agent to try to find the best possible way [forward]. Eddie knows how much I rate him, how much I like him and how much I want him to stay at the club.
“He thinks he’s capable to contribute much more, and that’s why I like him. I have a strong feeling with him that he can really help the team.”
It’s fair to say that Aubameyang’s form has been increasingly poor, and Lacazette looks less and less effective as a goalscorer. So, giving someone else a chance isn’t a revolutionary idea or anything like that. It just feels a bit extraordinary that a player who has barely been involved all season has now become so important in the manager’s mind, and the idea of giving a young player minutes in order to convince him to sign a new deal doesn’t sit right with me. It should be the other way around, you get minutes when you commit.
Which isn’t to criticise Nketiah, I understand completely why he’d see his future elsewhere, and this summer the ability to go on a free will open up so many more doors for him. Not to mention he shares an agent with Flo Balogun, and I just wonder how we can possibly convince two young strikers there’s a pathway to regular first team football here. If he starts today, I’m sure he’ll do his best, and I wouldn’t even be slightly surprised if he did well and scored, but this scenario we find ourselves in feels like a semi-desperate reaction rather than any kind of strategy.
Personally, I found it easier to get on board with Arteta’s decisions when they looked like things which would help drive our future. Ramsdale over Leno; Tomi in and every other right back at our disposal sat down to watch on; Sambi in midfield – although injury to Arteta’s favourite midfielder forced that a bit. Still, it was encouraging. So, there’s room to do that today. Why not play Gabriel Martinelli up front, with Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard behind him? This is a home game against (fellow) mid-table opposition. If it doesn’t work, you can bring Eddie off the bench. He had an impact against Everton, so use that, but pick your starting team based on who is here, who will be here, and who has committed their future to this club.
Beyond that, I don’t expect much in the way of change. I’d have no qualms with Sambi returning to midfield today either, but I think he’ll stick with Partey and Xhaka. At the back, there’s a need to tighten up, obviously, and hopefully some lessons have been learned from the last three away games in which we’ve conceded 9 times.
We talk all the time – too frequently for my liking to be honest – about what kind of a response we’re going to see from this team to its latest setback. And here we are again. Let’s see what happens this time.
Catch you later.