Isn’t it just the most ‘Arsenal’ thing ever to have a fully fit squad a month or so ago, yet here we are approaching crunch time, when things are decided and shiny silver trinkets are to be won, with players dropping like flies.
After the game on Sunday evening Arteta gave a brief update and we’re expecting some kind of news ahead of the trip to Prague on Thursday, but the manager hardly sounded over-the-top optimistic, did he?
Just our luck. We could go into the Slavia Prague game missing Tierney, Luiz, Saka, Smith-Rowe and Odegaard. If you were picking a starting XI of the best team available to us in this current squad, I think right now all of those players would make the first XI. So that’s more than half of our first choice XI who are out. That doesn’t take in to account the fact that Aubameyang could also be missing – or at least not 100% after illness – and this is all conspiring to make Thursday night an incredibly nervous one. Like it wasn’t going to be already.
I really hope Arteta has lock himself away at London Colney and is trying to find a possible alternative solution to the conundrum that will be Thursday’s game. Slavia will be better than they were against us at The Emirates, of that I am in no doubt, but surely we too should be better than our showing? The lack of pace, intensity, urgency, if ever there was a time to discard those negative attributes it would be this game. There can be no excuses for lacklustre performances and for me that means Arteta needs to find something different.
Then I start to think about what is different that he could do with players available? Let’s make the assumption that ALL of the above players aren’t fit enough to play. What then?
Arrange your attacking front line with bags of pace. It’s the only thing I can think of. And for me that means Willian doesn’t even get on the plane to Prague. It means Pepe and Martinelli flank Lacazette (I’m making the assumption Auba doesn’t play, otherwise he goes in like a shot) and you look to drive forward with rapid movement. I do wonder as well if Arteta does some dice rolling with some of the youth players. Perhaps you opt for Azeez and Balogun to be on the bench? Although I suspect that won’t be the case because they played yesterday in a 3-2 win over the under-23s. Balogun scored and he’s due to be announced for another deal at some stage this week, so perhaps a good way of recognising his potential in the player by naming him in the extended squad that is allowed in the Europa. I’d have Azeez too, because it will provide energy, a freshness about the team and might surprise a few Slavia players and coaching staff too if we have a couple of ‘left of field’ options.
The fact you can make five subs needs to be key on Thursday too. Arsenal have a vastly superior squad on paper and in terms of the investment made in the playing staff and whilst that might not mean that we get past Slavia in this next round, what it should mean is that our options from the bench should be able to provide us with more opportunities to change the narrative of the football match. We saw how making multiple subs made an impact in the first leg and it has been one of those facets of Arteta’s coaching style that has come under scrutiny. That especially has to be the case when you can make so many subs. It afford you a bit of a buffer and I don’t think there are many of us who feel that Arteta has used that to great effect.
It’s frustrating because it feels to me like he’s been far too risk-averse in his decision making and that feels like it has cost us. Making subs with just 12 minutes to go didn’t give us enough time to press home our advantage and I think most of us Gooners felt that Arteta’s indecisiveness might have cost us if we get knocked out in just a couple of days time. Think about it logically; if you come on as a sub, it might take you two or three minutes to get in to the pace of it, or even before you receive the ball. In the Premier League our player with the most touches in attack is Saka with 1,365 touches in 27 appearances. That’s an average of 50 a game, which is about one touch every 30 seconds or so. Many of those touches are not in goalscoring positions. So if you give somebody 12 minutes to make an impact you’re saying that at best they will have six instances of getting the ball on average. Is that enough time to make an impact?
Not to me it isn’t. Yet on Thursday last week Auba had a shot just wide and the assist to put Pepe in on goal for his finish. Now imagine that he’s come on at 60 minutes. You’re looking at potentially getting 15 touches in that time and we know that Auba is a low touch player so his involvement will be at the sharp end of the pitch. I’m not really a stats guy, just wanted to do some basic crunching to think about what indecisiveness does to the chances of winning a football match and whilst I am still on the Arteta bus, this is something he needs to get better at. Especially in Europe with five subs. You can make three subs on 60 minutes and you’ve STILL got two in reserve for injuries or last minute tactical changes. You can replace an injured player in the first half and STILL make three subs on 60 minutes, knowing you have one more you can do. So what I’m hoping for on Thursday – assuming it isn’t quite going to plan (which I think we’re all acutely aware of possibly/probably happening with this Arsenal team) – is that decisions are made swiftly and fastly. I hope MIkel is prepared to roll the dice a little quicker.
Even if that is for some young blood. It was because of his rolling of the dice with Smith Rowe and some of the younger players over Christmas that we found a winning formula for a period of time. Now we just need to perhaps move that to the next stage with the likes of Balogun or Azeez. I know it is a high pressure environment, but we need to know if these kids can cut it and so I say give them a chance if it isn’t working on Thursday.
Let’s see what Mikel says in his press conference ahead of the game. Maybe we’ll get a hint of it.
Catch you all tomorrow
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