If somebody would have told me a month ago that this Arsenal team would be going in to a quarter final of a Europa League tie with somewhat of a crisis of confidence potentially brewing, I’d have probably have laughed it off. We’d beaten Leicester, shot ourselves in the foot against Burnley but had battered them, then a few days later in March would beat the scum in the North London Derby. We were talking about how impressive our form had been since Boxing Day and I’d be feeling pretty confident of us navigating past Slavia Prague over two legs.
Yet here we are, on the eve of the first game, with the Jekyll and Hyde of this Arsenal team having been well and truly laid bare in the last month. We’ve seen impressive fight and comebacks like the game against West ham, we’ve seen dogged displays like the win at home against the Scum of Tottenham, we’ve seen the pathetic and passiveness of the home defeat to the Scousers. At this stage it LITERALLY feels like any Arsenal team could rock up tonight.
What hasn’t helped the preparation is that one.of our best players this season – Kieran Tierney – has been ruled out for between four to six weeks with a knee injury. It was confirmed by the club on the website yesterday, then also by Mikel Arteta in his press conference and it is a massive blow for us. Not least because he has been so good and has caused so many problems for opponents going forward on that left hand side, but also that he’s our only real option in that position. We all knew this was going to happen though, right? I mean this is the Arsenal and we do injury crisis very well, so when we decided to rely on Tierney as our sole natural left back in January, whilst shipping out Kolasinac to Schalke on loan, we all just knew it would come back to haunt us at some stage.
The hope is that the prognosis of four to six week’s is closer to six than it is four, because that would take him to the beginning of May and if by some luck we are still in the competition in a month’s time, then it will mean we have navigated our way to the final and he might get a chance to play. If it is closer to six weeks – and I think we all suspect that is what will end up happening given it’s Arsenal – then his season is effectively over.
My hope is that this injury is the same as the Ramsey injury suffered in our Europa League run in Emery’s first season in charge. That game was the quarter final and whilst we coped without him for the semi finals against Valencia, there’s no doubt he was massively missed in the final against Chelski. I fear that this might be a similar situation with Tierney, but I just hope the team have it in them to counter balance the loss on that left hand side.
What it does mean – as Arteta admitted – is that we need to find a different solution to cause damage on that left hand side. The two options I think most of us are banding about are Bukayo Saka and Cedric. From some of the people I follow on social media I feel like it is weight 70-30 in favour of playing Cedric on that side, but for me I am thinking about the way we play and also the role Saka would have if he started on the left. Firstly, he would be able to deliver the same level of damage as Tierney there I think. His distribution from out wide is good, he’ll spend most of his time going forward than defending, plus if we have Xhaka back in the team – which is expected as he was pictured back in full training after illness – then the Swiss will naturally slot back in there on the left to provide cover for when Saka ventures forward. That was the blueprint last season when Arteta took over and it worked well at times.
I’m also thinking that Pepe on the pitch in the wide right position would be better than Cedric on the pitch at left back. Pepe’s form had been better, but we reverted back to the old ways against Liverpool and he never really got a sniff. If Odegaard is fit then I expect to see more from Pepe and even if he isn’t, I think that in Smith-Rowe we have a player who will drift over and provide more connectivity to the Ivorian than last November and December, when he was isolated and we saw the worst of him as well as the others.
So in terms of team line up for tonight my pick would be Leno in goal, Bellerin at right back, Saka at left back, then Gabriel and Chambers at centre half. I just think Holding has been shown to be a little out of sorts lately and I think Chambers has looked much better, albeit as a right back. In midfield it simply has to be Partey and Xhaka and then in front of them it all comes down to fitness. If Odegaard and Smith-Rowe are fit then they should start. IF Odegaard doesn’t make it then you have to shift Smith-Rowe centrally, have Pepe wide right, then a decision to make wide left. I’d certainly be looking for someone like Martinelli to come in if we have Saka on that left, as the two built a good rapport last season, but I suspect it’ll be Aubameyang and Lacazette if Odegaard doesn’t make the starting line up.
To me that would be the wrong move. Lacazette has stunk the place out recently, punctuated only with patches of good performances. Aubameyang has too, but him wide left has looked worse than ever so if you put him centrally and surround him with pace then perhaps we can see a different Aubameyang. That’s my hope, anyway.
The hope is also for a win tonight. A big win. We need to take something back to the Czech Republic because they are coasting their league and will come to us with plenty of confidence. I don’t need to tell you just how big this is for Mikel Arteta. This could be season defining. So let’s hope he’s prepared his team well enough.
Catch you guys tomorrow with a review.