We are in Champions League action this evening as we face Lens at home, seeking some revenge, if you can call it that, for the 2-1 defeat in France back in October.
In terms of team news, there’s not much to report. Ben White is available, according to Mikel Arteta, despite the fact he began yesterday’s training session away from the main group. The main news is that Fabio Vieira, who was suspended for the game against Brentford due to his red card against Burnley, has undergone surgery and will be out until the new year. Arteta said:
We’ve got a problem with him. He’s been having some discomfort. We sent him to see a specialist and the advice was to have an operation in his groin. He did that yesterday. We don’t expect him back this side of the winter break.
While he has been fairly peripheral this season, with Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe still sidelined and a little way from making their comebacks, it’s not ideal. Midfield feels a bit light at the moment, so it’s something we could have done without. Tonight though, Arteta can stick with Leandro Trossard in there after he did fine against Brentford; he could move Declan Rice forward and play with Jorginho at the base of the midfield; or there’s the option to start Kai Havertz there, perhaps to try and make the most of the confidence boosting goal he got at the weekend.
What happens in midfield might have an impact on who plays up front. I was not expecting Gabriel Jesus to start against Brentford, so on the one hand that shows they didn’t feel it was a risk to do that. Nevertheless, after a month out, and with transatlantic travel in the mix too, is starting him for the third time in seven days sensible? The manager and the medical team will have more info than I do obviously, but I do wonder. If it’s Havertz in midfield, Trossard up top would be my preference, but there’s also Eddie Nketiah for the manager to choose from.
A win or a draw tonight would see us win the group, but Arteta is only thinking about the three points, saying:
Yeah, we do want to win the game, that’s for sure. We want to be top of the group and the opportunity is there for us tomorrow, against a team that causes problems, and that we’ve already experienced against them, so we have the right motivation to do that tomorrow.
Let’s hope we can achieve that with minimum fuss, meaning the final group game against PSV is one in which we can rotate/rest players – coming as it does ahead of a tricky game against Brighton.
The manager was also asked about his team’s attack, and was quite interesting on the differences between this season and last. He talked about how game-state played a big part last time out, due to the amount of early goals we scored. As Lewis pointed out in our Patreon preview podcast, we scored 14 goals in the first 15 minutes of games last season – this time around, we’ve yet to bag one in that time period. The earliest we’ve scored in the Premier League was the 17th minute against Bournemouth; and in the Champions League it was the 8th minute against PSV. Both scored by Bukayo Saka, by the way, and on both occasions we won those games 4-0.
The reality of how the opposition are setting up to ensure they don’t give anything away early on is clearly a reaction to what we did last season, and as for attacking fluency, the manager said:
It’s not going to be as fluent, it’s not going to be as hectic, because there is no space to run. When you are sitting in traffic, I want to go 100 miles an hour, but I have three buses and 55 taxis and motorbikes around me, so it’s tricky.
The solution, to his mind is ‘practice’:
There are certain things that we are insisting a lot to do, to create more issues for opponents. The more we practice, the better we will be. Sometimes we don’t want to provoke that but we will because the team wants to do it. It’s about finding the right key to unlock the doors in relation to what the team wants to do.
Whether we’ll see that kind of deep approach from Lens this evening remains to be seen, but we know we’re going to face it often in the Premier League, so it’s something we’re going to have work on getting on top of.