Monday, May 20, 2024

Sporting preview: A chance to test strength in depth

We’re in Europa League action this evening, taking on Sporting CP in the second leg of the Round of 16.

After a 2-2 draw last week you could say the game is finely poised, or on a knife edge, but I don’t think you get knife edges at this point of this tournament. Maybe a spoon edge. It’s winner takes all tonight though, and let’s not forget there is the possibility that this could go to extra time, something I’m sure Mikel Arteta does not want ahead of the Premier League clash with Crystal Palace on Sunday.

Therefore, I think he’ll make changes – just as he did last week – but with an eye to winning this game in the 90 minutes. The big decision is whether or not to start Gabriel Jesus, who made his comeback against Fulham at the weekend. He looked sharp, and fit, but he’s probably not quite ready yet to play a full game. Which is why I’d be tempted to start him.

The sooner we get decent competitive minutes into him, the better, and if he can do an hour tonight, that should stand him and us in good stead going forward. Of course he could bring him on with 20 minutes to go, but if the game did go to extra-time, he’d end up playing nearly just as much anyway. Clearly it all depends on the advice of the medical staff and how the player himself is feeling, but if he’s ready, I’d do it. Just seeing him start would be another big boost.

Not least because there was an almost throwaway update on Eddie Nketiah. After the manager was asked about the important stuff – Pep Guardiola’s Julia Roberts nonsense – there was little scrutiny of the comments he made about the striker who he revealed had a ‘nasty’ injury:

He’s getting better. He’s still in the boot so still a few weeks away. We need to be patient – it was a nasty injury. It’s a challenge that Eddie’s got ahead of him, but thank God he could have been worse so he’s not in a bad place.

Nasty but not bad but in a boot so probably worse than you would like. I see.

Arteta also spoke about Emile Smith Rowe, who didn’t feature at all against Fulham as he continues to make his way back from surgery. He basically said he’s ready to play, but seemed to challenge the 22 year old a little bit, saying:

He knows how much we love him and how much we missed him and how much we need his qualities. Now he needs to prove it. He needs to prove how much he wants to win and how much he’s going to contribute to this team. To be better and to win and he’s gonna have to show that to get on the team.

How can he prove if he doesn’t play? First and foremost the manager’s decisions are about winning in the short-term, but there must be a part of him that is thinking about how he’s going to need the full depth of his squad for the Premier League run-in, and let’s not ignore the fact that victory tonight means we’d continue to fight across two fronts. That means you need players like Smith Rowe to be match fit, and unless they’re going to play him in the U23s (which seems very unlikely), he’s got to get minutes in games like this one. If he does start, I’m very interested to see where, not least because we’ve heard in recent weeks about how he’s been training as one of the 8s since he made his return from the groin operation that has kept him out most of the season.

There are other changes which seems obvious. Jorginho for Thomas Partey makes sense, we’ll probably see a few at the back as well, and as I wrote earlier in the week, I wouldn’t mind resting Bukayo Saka for this one. That said, I feel like he always plays, and Arteta’s way of getting him through small spells where he’s not at his best is just to pick him and let him rediscover his best form on the pitch.

So, we might see something like this later: Turner, Tomiyasu, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Jorginho, Xhaka, Vieira, Smith Rowe, Saka, Jesus.

I could be way off, but we have a strong squad now, and these are the games when you should use it to its fullest extent. If you need players like Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey, Ben White, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Martinelli, and Leandro Trossard (who will continue up top if Jesus isn’t considered quite ready yet) – you have the luxury of doing that from a very healthy looking bench.

It’s the manager’s job to get a tune out of these guys, even if it’s not necessarily his first choice or most settled starting XI. Last week we were pretty sloppy, culpable for the goals we conceded, and if we can cut out that kind of nonsense, we should have enough to go through this evening.

You can find a preview podcast right now over on Patreon, in which we pore over the permutations of staying in versus going out of Europe, and much more. As ever we’ll have live blog coverage for you this evening, and all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News.

Catch you later.

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