I’ve got that song in my head from Home Alone 2. You know the one “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” by Johnny Mathis? Yep, that one, only I’ve replaced some of the words to create a new version circling my brain on repeat:
It’s the most wonderful time, of the week….
Yes folks, we have ourselves another match day and with the excitement back and the memory still fresh from the thrashing of Newcastle at the weekend, I’m hoping Arsenal build on that good feeling, by getting something away to Olympiakos tonight.
They’ve dropped down from the Champions League, which means they’re no walkover, but the positivity I feel must also be emanating from the squad travelling itself and that can only be a good thing.
It’s a squad without Özil (baby) and Torreira (ill) but nevertheless it is a team very capable of getting a result tonight and so I’m hoping we see some more impressive performances that build on Sunday’s home victory against the Geordies.
It certainly won’t be easy though. Olympiakos are coasting in their league, having beaten the bottom team in the division 4-0 at the weekend and whilst I of course didn’t really follow any of it, I’d wager their 4-0 was a lot easier than ours in the way it played out.
We’ve seen the impact that consistently winning does for a team too. When we played Leeds in the FA Cup in January they were top of the league and flying. Winning breeds winning mentalities and they brought that to The Emirates and gave us plenty of scares in the first half. But we managed to ride the storm – with a little bit of luck – and get the victory and so that’s what I’m hoping for tonight.
The atmosphere will be partisan and there will be plenty of noise from the Greek fans but we have some seasoned pros out there and I suspect we’ll see a few of the older heads as a result tonight, rather than a mass rotation of young players.
It’ll be interesting to see where Arteta’s head is at in that regard. I’m assuming he’ll continue with Martinez in goal, but beyond that it becomes a bit of a mystery, especially after the curveballs he threw at us on Sunday with his team selection. But if I was picking the team I’d probably rotate a little if I’m honest. For me that means Maitland-Niles in at right back, Kolasinac at left back, Sokratis and Luiz at centre half to make up a back four. Luiz has been on form, he’s marshalled the defence well and with him and the Greek alongside we have some experienced pros who are well-briefed in the type of atmosphere to expect tonight. Both would probably even revel in it. Some might question whether Mari will get a shot but I suspect Arteta will give him another under-23 game or two and look at the Portsmouth game for him to make the step up to the first team.
In front of them I’d pick a strong midfield and so for me that’s giving Ceballos another run out, but who to partner alongside him is a question. Does he rest Xhaka or does he give Guendouzi a shot? Both are good on the ball but equally, both can be bypassed with a bit of pace and trickery through the middle. On Sunday Almiron picked the ball up from deep and basically sprinted past both Xhaka and Ceballos. Thankfully Newcastle didn’t do that enough but Olympiakos are a better team, a more confident team, which means they probably do have the players who can do that. And they will.
So to my mind that means we need somebody with recovery pace or even the ability to sit a little deeper and be that destroyer; the kind of guy that breaks up play. It’s why I’d even consider playing David Luiz in there and if that happened, find another one of the centre halves to take his role at the back. Arteta won’t do that, but I do think we need somebody to break up the play.
Perhaps that could be Willock, but I think he’ll play in the creative 10 position and be asked by Arteta to replicate the style of play and game that he delivered away to Bournemouth. He was good going forward on the south coast but he also tracked back and won the the ball from the middle of the park and if we can use him to break up play further up the pitch and force turnovers in Olympiakos’ half, we could find ourselves with some joy in terms of catching Olympiakos cold.
I suspect he’ll go with Xhaka and Ceballos again though, with Willock in front, which then leaves questions in the wide positions. I think there’ll be rotation here because I think Arteta knows he has good options. So for me it’ll be Martinelli wide left, Lacazette up top, then on the other side perhaps he’ll give Pepe another run out. He’s already said how Pepe needs a run of games and this feels like the type of game in which the wide forward will get opportunities. At home, with a ferocious crowd baying for their team to attack, it might leave space for the likes of Pepe to take advantage of and so I am hoping he gets another chance to impress like he did on Sunday.
It’s an intriguing match up. When we’ve played Olympiakos in the past it’s usually been in the Champions League and we’ve usually been a better team with more confidence, so the result has felt a little easier and simpler to predict, but tonight you’d say the two teams are more closely matched and so this will be a tricky encounter for The Arsenal. Their top scorer has 20 goals in all competitions – Youssef El-Arabi – and he’s apparently a guy that fancies a shot from distance. So closing down spaces in the final third is key. They tend to alternate between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 and in the middle of the park they have the dinky Valbuena who will be pulling the strings. He’s caused us some troubles in the past with Marseille and whilst he might not have the pace at 35 any more, he still has an eye for a pass and his dribbling ability remains in tact. So we’ll have to watch the link up between him and El-Arabi.
But we need to keep our minds focused and hopefully get an away goal. If we score first it could open up the play but it feels like keeping the crowd quiet is as important as anything tonight.
Here’s hoping to a platform to start that winning streak we’ve missed all season.
Catch you all tomorrow with some thoughts.