Sunday, October 2, 2022

It’s Going To Be A Big Europa League For…

Arsenal begin their Europa League campaign in Zurich on Thursday night. While I don’t think Arsenal will completely disregard their first-choice starters for the group stages, it is obvious that there will be a generous measure of rotation and opportunities for players who are considered deputies to established first choice players. Here are three players in particular, for whom the Europa League group stage will be instructive.

Albert SAMBI LOKONGA
Signed from Anderlecht last summer, the Belgian found his opportunities restricted in a Europa-less season last year. Lokonga came into the team for the injured Thomas Partey in April and found the ring-rust difficult to shake off after months of peering on from the sidelines. Arsenal were rarely in command of enough Premier League matches to even give him soft minutes from the bench prior to April.

He found himself exposed during a pair of damaging results for the team and was quickly replaced in the starting line-up by the more experienced Mohamed Elneny and Sambi was seldom seen again. Elneny’s contract was renewed during the summer and a decision seems to have been taken that the deepest midfield slot is not suited to Sambi’s talents.

During the final game of last season against Everton, Sambi was subbed on for Granit Xhaka and all of his pre-season minutes were spent in that left eight role. All of this is broadly fine and Xhaka turns 30 later in September, while not ready for the knacker yard, there is a potential path into the team for him there.

That was until the signing of Oleksandr Zinchenko which surely knocks Sambi down the left-eight pecking order one place- not to mention the acquisition of Fabio Vieira. Fast forward a few weeks and Elneny and Partey are injured within days of one another. Arteta’s response was to try (unsuccessfully) to sign Douglas Luiz on deadline day.

Whichever way you slice it, all the evidence suggests that Arteta is to be convinced by Sambi’s talents. Either as the six or the left eight, he is third choice at best in both positions. The injuries to Elneny and Partey and the failure to land Luiz presents him with an opportunity in that deeper role.

The Europa League is Sambi’s chance to convince Arteta that he is worthy of a more prominent place in Arteta’s plans and it’s also a chance for him to relearn some of the fundamentals of the deeper role. He impressed in possession against Aston Villa and Manchester United but his off-ball game needs work. The Europa League group stage is a good opportunity for him to accelerate his education and build up a rhythm of games.

Fábio VIEIRA
If the injuries to Elneny and Partey have opened a door for Sambi Lokonga, they’ve also cracked a window for Fábio Vieira. All the chatter suggested that a right winger was what Arsenal really wanted in the final days of the window but the injury situation in midfield altered their focus.

As a player slightly beneath the starting XI, Vieira’s name is mentioned in the duplicate and triplicate. His versatility is a big part of the reason that convinced the Gunners to part with the guts of £30m for a player who didn’t look to be an absolute priority. It seemed like a smart squad addition.

His ability to play as a right winger or a right eight mean that he provides cover for Odegaard and Saka without having to rely on just one of those players to be injured. His chances of being involved and, more importantly, not isolated from the team for long periods, are heightened by covering for two important players rather than just one. This was an issue for Tavares and Sambi last season who endured long spells without playing because their seniors were not injured until later in the season.

You want your squad players to stay as involved as possible and having squad players that can cover different roles aids and abets that. The midfield situation probably bumps Vieira up in the central midfield carousel in the left eight position too. There is the prospect of moving Xhaka back to the base of the midfield with Vieira to his left.

Suddenly, Vieira finds himself as a back-up for three important players. It remains to be seen whether his role does become multi-faceted and how that impacts his development. Sometimes it teaches a player some important fundamentals, sometimes it can see a player become too tactically nomadic to nail down a place in the medium-term (Maitland-Niles, Oxlade Chamberlain).

It will be interesting to see which shape Vieira’s Europa League campaign assumes. Whose load will he bear? Xhaka? Odegaard? Saka? All of those at different times? Midfield is where the “senior team” has personnel issues at the moment. I fancy we’ll see him play in Xhaka’s role and, if he impresses, I can see Xhaka moving to the base of the midfield and Vieira into the left-eight role in the Premier League. For his own long-term prospects at Arsenal, Xhaka’s role looks more “available” in the medium-term than either Saka or Odegaard.

Reiss NELSON
Nelson was probably one of Arsenal’s biggest winners of the transfer window. The late window shift in focus away from the wing and towards an unfruitful search for a central midfielder means, in theory at least, there is an opportunity for Nelson to restate his case and remind people of the qualities that made him so highly rated as a teenager.

Development is rarely linear for young players and it would certainly be some story if Nelson were able to re-establish himself as any kind of option in Mikel Arteta’s attacking rolodex. Of course, a pinch of realism is required here, there is simply no chance that he is going to unseat Bukayo Saka or become a bona fide first choice pick.

However, with one year left to run on his contract, Arsenal are probably not the team he will be looking to impress in the long-term. One of the reasons I think the club found it difficult to procure a right-sided attacker is due to star player syndrome. When a team has an out and out star, it is difficult to persuade a good player to come and understudy him.

Spurs struggled with dedicated Harry Kane back-up for years, Liverpool have spent the last five years or so fielding one of the most symbiotic front lines in European football in Salah, Mane and Firmino. For a good portion of their attacking premiership, their deputies were Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino.

It’s not a glamorous role that is up for grabs for Nelson but it’s a lot more than looked available to him a fortnight ago. He ought to take encouragement from Eddie Nketiah’s trajectory last season as Eddie seemed to be drifting towards the exit door only to earn a new contract. In reality, Nelson is playing for his next contract elsewhere- a Bosman no less. His task will be to rise to prominence in the Europa League group stages, much as he did as a teenager.

From there, if he can muscle his way into some Premier League minutes to relieve the load from Saka, he is going to be in a far better position to lure attractive suitors than he is if he is handing out half-time oranges. The Europa League and Arsenal’s failure to land another winger offers Nelson a launchpad to reignite his career.

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