Morning gooners and welcome to another match day, one in which we don’t see much of for the next week, so I for one am doing my upmost to ensure that my excitement levels are heightened during my working day today. They may be a small provincial Swedish club that I hadn’t have heard of until the draw (and I’m a child of the 90s Championship Manager era, so I’ve pretty much at least seen the names of most teams in Europe), but Arsenal still have to remain professional and show that despite the circa zero degree temperatures the team is ready to do the job tonight.
And really we do need to see the job being done tonight. After Liverpool play Porto at home in their next Champions League game, they go to Old Trafford and do by nailing Porto to the wall as they did yesterday, they can afford to rotate some players knowing that there is pretty much no chance Porto are beating them and progressing at home.
That’s what Arsenal have to do tonight because unlike the Champions League which alternates weeks, the Europa League will see us play a game on the Thursday before we face up against City in the League Cup final next Sunday. If we have to play a strong team for that game then not only are we going to be more tired than a better team than us anyway, but we’re likely to fade earlier in the Cup Final. I desperately don’t want to see that.
So tonight is a really important game and therefore I can totally understand why Arsène said he has to play his best team tonight. The thing is though, we’ve got so many players who appear to be injured, ill or cup tied, that it looks like he’s massively rotating the team anyway. Out are Cech, Koscielny, Wilshere, Ramsey, Aubameyang, Lacazette. That’s a fairly lengthy absentee list and when you add it to the players who also departed in January this Europa League side is going to look quite different to the one that played the group stages.
The challenge the players have will be to perform in such fold temperatures but if I’m honest I think too much has been made of it. Yes there’s lots of snow everywhere. Yes it’ll be a bit chilly on the old Johnson for the gents on the pitch and the bench, but once you get moving in any cold temperatures you quickly warn up. I’ve played in one degree weather at Ruislip Goals and after five minutes I was fine. Well, after five minutes I was blowing out of my arse, but that’s more to do with the fitness and general poor technical ability I have, rather than the weather.
So I’m expecting an Arsenal performance that cant be attributed to the conditions.
Of course the down side is that we’re away from home and that hasn’t exactly been fun for any Arsenal fan to watch this season. I just hope those few who have travelled fair better than we have domestically this season.
In terms of the team news I’d expect to see Ospina in goal and now that the back four has been abandoned I think we’ll see Bellerin, Mustafi, probably Chambers although Holding might get the nod, then Nacho on the left. It’s clear Arsène doesn’t fancy Kolasinac although there might be an outside chance of him playing because I suspect we’ll see Arsenal have most of the ball this evening. So his thinking might be that our full backs will be acting as auxiliary wingers and although we’ve all had issues with the Bosnian’s defensive side, few can doubt his contribution going forward.
Midfield will inevitably have Xhaka in it but who partners him will be interesting. Willock has done well at times this season and Arsène hasn’t really given Ainsley Maitland-Niles a shot in midfield yet but do you know what? I fancy him to play in the middle today. I have nothing other than a hunch on this but I just reckon he might get a go to see if he can be the energy, ground-covering, foil for Xhaka to operate as a deep-lying ball distributor.
If that happens and is a success it will be hard to determine whether that’s due to a new format in the midfield or the opposition. But at least it’ll give the manager something to think about.
Then I think Arsène simply has to go for three in front of the midfield and that three should be Özil, Mkhi and one other. The one other should be Iwobi and this is a game I want him to take by the scruff of the neck. He was woeful against Spurs, has had a torrid season, is clearly lacking confidence, but should see this game as a chance to get back to his direct running best. We will get ball tonight. He will have his chance to operate in close quarters and when you’ve got a team sitting deep what you want to see is a player like Iwobi and his quick feet to weave through bodies and provide either the finish or pass to get us goals.
The lone man up top will be Welbeck and tonight will be the first time in god knows how long that he gets to play up top in his first choice position, but also with the quality behind him to give him service. Welbeck will run and run and run and that means the three behind him will have chances to slot him in so what I want to see – should that happen – is him having the composure that night he bagged his hat trick against Galatasaray all those years ago in the Champions League.
It’s time he showed the manager what he can do because with a new deal on the horizon if he wants a bumper pay rise we need to see a lot more from the player.
A big win tonight could be massive. It provides a confidence boost, it gives Arsène wiggle room in the return leg and also gets rid of that little bit of funk that exists around the club since the North London Derby. It’s all in the players’ hands. Let’s just hope they do the business.