For a team that has spent most of the season not turning up for one half of a game – usually the first half – tonight’s match against BATE Borisov feels like it needs one heck of a first half Arsenal performance to stop the nerves of cup competition knockout to set in.
It seems crazy that I’m even talking about it against a team we smashed home and away last year, who have only just started their season, who’s side collectively cost less than one year of Özil or Mkhitaryan’s salary right now and who celebrated the victory against us by going to a McDonald’s after the game.
But we are indeed here, one down and not a few goals to the good and sure to rotate, but instead having to field our best possible side ahead of a Europa League second round.
What we could all do with tonight is an Arsenal team that shows that last Thursday was just the mother of all banana skins and having fallen foul we just need to watch our step and skip around said banana skin tonight. So what I’m hoping from this Arsenal team is a dominant and attacking display that throws caution to the wind and doesn’t see us ply the kind of suffocatingly dull football that we’ve seen in away games this season.
To their credit the team has always been much, much, better in home games and so to quote a Wengerism I hope there is a little release of that old ‘handbrake’ come 5.55pm this afternoon (UEFA can ‘do one’ with that time too. Disgraceful).
BATE – as Koscielny said when sat next to a unai yesterday – will have a game plan to sit deep and frustrate and that’s what I think we’ll see from the start. Which means we need as many creative players on the pitch as possible. Personally I’d have Aubameyang, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Özil all from the start. If Ramsey isn’t quite 100% then get Iwobi in but his poor form should dictate a place on the sidelines.
I suspect Iwobi will start though because Emery loves him.
Behind that four it would have to be Xhaka and Torreira for me. Guendouzi has been good this season and of late but Xhaka has a better passing range and Torreira can mop up better than the Frenchman if any moves break down from our attacks.
Behind that if we’re playing those players it is a back four and although Monreal is a better left back defensively than Kolasinac, we shouldn’t have to do much defending tonight so I’d be playing the big Bosnian for his forward running and overlap. And on the other side I’d stick with Maitland-Niles. Again there are question marks over his defensive discipline but he has recovery pace that can get him out of jail and tonight he should be spending more time in the final third.
Then in the heart of the defence you can take your pick but the best two defenders at the club are Sokratis and Koscielny and that should mean those two start with Cech sitting in goal behind him.
And I really hope he has so little to do that he could almost literally sit down in goal.
The emphasis tonight has to be on us unlocking BATE and to me that means we need to score early to suck any life out of them. Get two within the first 30minutes and the game changes completely because they have to come out at us eventually which leaves us able to hit them on the counter. But we have to start fast and quick and the team need to be on it from the first few minutes.
A team playing a deep defensive line and trying to remain compact in their shape means that you need clever operators when we have the ball and 11 players in front of you, but it also means movement in between the lines and that is where Kolasinac, Ramsey, Auba, all need to be able to deliver for us. I’d probably also put Maitland-Niles in that list too. Look to make the runs, look to get in behind so that it disrupts the set up of BATE, then create movement in the box to find space in tight places.
This would be the type of game that would have been good for Lacazette too as he operates well with little space in the box, but his frustration has cost his team a valuable offensive outlet and we therefor need to do the business tonight to make sure he can be used in the next round if we progress.
The players who will ‘find’ players are Özil, Xhaka, Torreira or Guendouzi to a lesser extent if he plays, but they need to have movement to be able to find those runners so it is imperative that the team are mobile this evening.
What we don’t need is a lackadaisical first half in which the intensity is not there and the players aren’t fighting to win the ball back higher up the pitch. BATE are not a technically brilliant side and so if you put them under pressure when they have the ball in their half then I think we can force them to make mistakes.
Let’s hope that happens because I really don’t want to be talking about our exit tomorrow and if I am, then we have to ask some massive questions about whether Emery is the right man, because there’s no way a team like ours should go out over two legs to a side like BATE.
Come on Arsenal. Show us that in this competition you mean business.