Wolves’ win yesterday against a pathetic and hapless Crystal Palace – already on the beach (and how the hell did they pick up two draws against us? Oh yeah, VAR…) and not fussed either way – means that the chances of Arsenal qualifying for Europe via the league are reliant on so many permutations going our way that even the most optimistic of us will probably now admit that the game is probably up. We need two wins to get to 59 points, need Chelski to lose to Liverpool tomorrow night, which means they still have to beat Wolves to secure a Champions League place on the final day. They play Wolves and if they beat Wolves then in theory we could finish on the same points. However, the goal difference for Wolves is a +5 swing on us. So what we need to effectively do is win tonight by two clear goals or more, then against Watford by two clear goals or more, then hope Chelski get two clear goal or more against Wolves.
That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and I don’t think any of us realistically believe that we’ll be able to make that up that swing in the space of a couple of games, not against opponents who also very much have a ‘win or bust’ situation at the bottom of the table.
On paper the game tonight should be one that Arsenal are looking at getting something comfortably from. There is a reason Aston Villa are in the relegation zone and that’s because they haven’t scored enough goals and on top of that they have absolutely shipped goals for fun. They’ve conceded 67 in 36 games at an average of 1.86 goals per game, so on paper you’d say that us scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem. Of course we’ve conceded 45 this season so you’d expect us to concede one at least too. But this game will have a level of intensity much higher for Villa than most other games they’ve had this season because it really will be ‘bye-bye’ to the Premier League for them if we win or possibly even if we draw depending on how Watford get on, although Watford are at home to Man City, so you wouldn’t expect them to get anything from that game.
So even though this season has been a car crash for us, there is still a situation where we are still fighting for something to play for in the league, albeit unlikely. And the wins over Liverpool and Man City have given us hope of a blueprint for next season. But so much is relying on maintaining momentum right now and Mikel Arteta will be acutely aware of that as he picks his side tonight. We all saw how Emery fudged the end of last season and it made for patchy form going into the Europa League Final, so none of us want a repeat of that against Chelski in just over a week and a half’s time. That means we need to be picking up two wins in our next two games to keep the spirits of the players high because as we’ve already seen, a week can do a lot to you in football.
But as Arteta admitted in his press conference yesterday there are players who have given a lot in the last couple of games, so I think the expectation of rotation tonight is pretty much a given, with a number of players he could realistically rotate. For example, we can look at the full backs and see how things can be shuffled. Cedric can come in for Bellerin, Saka can come in for Maitland-Niles. In defence we will be missing Mustafi, but Holding can replace him. Perhaps Arteta keeps Tierney and Luiz in the team, but we also have Kolasinac who has played as a left centre half and Sokratis is also available. I know Kolasinac had that shocker against Tottenham, but before then he’d put in a couple of decent enough performances away at Watford and at home to Norwich, so for rotation purposes I could see that happening tonight.
In midfield you can easily make a case for Torreira in the middle but I wonder if the manager will also opt for the continuity of Xhaka in the side. It wasn’t long ago that we saw Lucas and Granit as the two main men in the middle of the park and so I wouldn’t be too sad to see the little Uruguayan get some more minutes tonight. But it’s wht lies in front of them that also intrigues me. For example, I’d expect Eddie Nketiah to come in, maybe even Reiss Nelson, but who makes up the third forward? Does Arteta decide to push Kolasinac as a wing back and therefore bring Saka in on the left? Surely he’ll want to rest Auba’s legs? Or perhaps Pepe still gets the nod? Maybe he’ll drop it to more of a two and play Willock just behind and use his running power?
There are lots of question marks about who plays tonight but I’d be expecting to see changes throughout the team and I don’t think we can argue with that. There is no point running players into the ground with just over a week to go until a cup final. We need those players ready for anything and so having them nowhere near the infamous ‘red zone’ is a-ok for me.
This one still remains a tough one to call when you’re not 100% sure which Arsenal players will take to the field tonight, but I just hope that the morale and confidence from Saturday’s performance in the semi final isn’t sapped from us with an ‘after the Lord Mayors show’ type of game this evening.
Up the Arsenal. Catch you tomorrow.