Today was supposed to be a standard match preview blog ahead of this afternoon’s ridiculously early kick off away to Vitoria, but after the news dropped yesterday evening from Unai Emery that Xhaka had been dropped as captain, I guess that probably takes a little bit of the focus off the game itself today.
Aubameyang is the new captain of Arsenal and I know that will make plenty of people happy. He’s a popular figure in the dressing room, seems to have integrated himself so well since he joined, so perhaps it’s a logical decision that if you’re going to drop one guy from the captaincy, you need a really popular replacement, which I think this is. Hector Bellerin as vice captain feels to me like the majority of fans would have preferred, but given that Auba was already vice captain I guess Emery didn’t want to cause any more consternation.
Quite where this leaves Xhaka’s Arsenal future god only knows. He wasn’t there at the weekend, he’s not there this afternoon, so you wonder if he’s been given the longest ever Christmas holiday break and if the club will look to offload in the January transfer window. My hope is that they do not. That’s mainly because this was an incident that has caused consternation amongst Arsenal fans, the players and shown problems within the club. All is not rosy in our garden and by stripping the captaincy of a popular player, what will the other players be thinking the next time a fan – or a few fans – turn on them? It feels like this could drive a little bit of a wedge between players and fans – even if a low-key and unspoken one – but you can’t tell me that these players haven’t seen what’s been going on and will just ‘walk it off’ after what has happened over the last couple of weeks.
In Unai’s presser he said this is finished but I’ll be surprised if the players are just forgetting this episode ever happened.
But anyway, on to this evening/afternoon, in which I have had to get in mega early this morning to start my day, only sporadically come back to write a pre match collection of ramblings throughout the morning, which is a bit of a pain in the arse if I’m honest. But what I have found interesting is the squad that Emery has selected to travel out to Vitoria. With nine points already in the bag, this is a game in which he could probably afford to drop in some heavy squad rotation, but by the looks of it he’s gone strong and, perhaps like last year, he just wants to get to 12 points as quickly as possible so he can even more heavily rotate in subsequent European games.
Quite what that means for some of those players on Saturday evening I’m not sure, so I hope Unai knows what he is doing, because it is a much more important game on Saturday than tonight. But it does feel to me as though this – the Europa League – is Emery’s comfort blanket and that in itself is a worry because we’ve been telling ourselves that we’re too big, too good and shouldn’t be looking at the Europa League as a competition that is anything other than an irritation. But if this is what gets Emery’s juices flowing then it’s just another worrying sign about his tenure as Arsenal manager.
Anyway, back to the team tonight, and what I think we’ll see is a bit of a mix up between the first team and a bit of rotation. Where there’s a little less risk I suspect it’s an easy decision to make. For example you’d expect Martinez to start in goal, perhaps we’ll have Martinelli up top and given Bellerin did the press conference with Unai yesterday I think he’ll play. So for me the team tonight will probably shape up with Martinez, Bellerin, Holding, Mustafi, Kolainsac at left back. Then in midfield I think he’ll go for Willock, but who partners him will be interesting. I would choose Ceballos and keep Torreira fresh for Saturday. Alternatively he could push Willock further forward and have Maitland-Niles dropping deeper into the two in front of the back four. Maitland-Niles wasn’t great against Vitoria in that position a couple of week’s back but we need to find a way to build up his form and I’m not sure shunting him out wide right would work.
The front three will probably be Lacazette – who I’m hoping has a better game than he has been having – then either side I suspect will be Martinelli and maybe Saka, but I’d like to see Nelson get some minutes coming back from injury and the other option could be to go with a front two of Martinelli and Lacazette with four in midfield.
We really don’t know how he’ll line up but one things for sure, the team have to play better than they have been doing. These players are better than the Vitoria players and they need to show it, but as the Wolves game showed at the weekend this side is on its knees from a confidence point of view. Quite how we rescue that back with a man who isn’t really inspiring anyone at the moment in Emery, I don’t know, but at some stage we have to wrestle some confidence back. A defeat or even a draw tonight will only increase the cat calls for Emery to go, but even a win if we play poorly again won’t help his clause. He’s clinging on for dear life in the fans eyes – even if maybe not in the board’s eyes – and the only way to get away from that precipice is to win football matches and to win well.
Catch you all tomorrow with a match review.