Our season rests on tonight. Win and we have a European final and a chance to make up for what has been a dismal domestic campaign. I don’t even want to consider the alternative right now, but there will have to be a serious postmortem if it doesn’t go well later on.
Villarreal, as we know, take a 2-1 advantage into tonight’s game, but that away goal is very much our lifeline. At 2-0 down we really could have been 3-0 down, and we’d have had to pull off something verging on miraculous to go through, but a classic, old-skool 1-0 to the Arsenal would be enough to qualify.
The chances of that happening feel slim though. I didn’t even need to run the odds through a super-computer, and it’s the end of January since we kept a clean sheet at home, so I think we’re going to have to score more than one tonight. Hence, as we think about how the team might be set up, we have to lean into its attacking strength, and make decisions which will make the team most effective from that perspective.
Here’s my team, with explanations/alternatives for a couple of positions.
Bernd Leno – I know he’s had some difficult moments of late, but it was his big save which kept us in it in the first leg.
Hector Bellerin – Not everyone would agree, but for me he’s still our best right-back. He’s also been there, done that, and worn the t-shirt at the business end of cup competitions for us in the past, and I think that’s useful for a fixture like this.
Calum Chambers – I suspect it will be Rob Holding, but I’d be willing to play Chambers ahead of him tonight. There is talk of David Luiz being available, but I just don’t see any way how a guy who came off with a hamstring strain on Sunday is fit enough to start tonight. It’s surely too big a risk to start him. Chambers is more comfortable on the ball than Holding for me, so in the absence of Luiz, and with Arteta seemingly not fully convinced of the Holding/Gabriel partnership, this is my pick.
Gabriel – I thought Pablo Mari was poor last week. Gabriel did fine against Newcastle, and I’d stick with him again tonight. We dropped a big transfer fee on him, and while he’s still young and learning, he’s the potential future of the position for us, whereas Mari is never going to be more than adequate back-up. Whatever happens tonight, these are the kind of games we need to use him, because if we have more of them in the future, the experience and development is important.
Kieran Tierney – This, of course, is dependent on his fitness but he was in full training yesterday so he must have a chance. It would be a risk in that he’s spent a month out so would be lacking some match fitness, and that might well be something Villarreal look to exploit if he does play, but he brings so much quality and character to that left hand side it’d be the one risk I’d be willing to take from a fitness perspective this evening.
Alternative: If he’s not fit enough, we can’t continue the Xhaka thing, so I would play Bukayo Saka at left-back.
Thomas Partey – Obviously.
Granit Xhaka – In the absence of Dani Ceballos who is suspended, I think we need Xhaka back in midfield. He fits much better with a conventional left-back, and as Tierney (hopefully) bombs forward, he often slots into that space anyway.
Martin Odegaard – Looked much more like his normal self against Newcastle. Given who we should have up front and outside him, he’s got to start for me.
Bukayo Saka – If Tierney plays he starts on the right. If Tierney doesn’t play we have Nicolas Pepe for the right hand side.
Nicolas Pepe – I’d have him on the left tonight if Tierney starts. No Tierney, he’s starting on the right with Emile Smith Rowe on the left.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – He scored against Newcastle, a goal he badly needed, and it was interesting to read yesterday just how badly affected he had been by malaria in the weeks before it was diagnosed. It explains a lot. It doesn’t tell the story of his whole season, but there have been a lot of things for him to deal with, and hopefully he can finish with a flourish – in much the same way as he did last season when his goalscoring was key to winning the FA Cup.
So, basically: Leno, Bellerin, Chambers, Gabriel, Tierney (Saka), Xhaka, Partey, Odegaard, Saka (Pepe), Pepe (Smith Rowe), Aubameyang.
I can already hear people screaming the name Gabriel Martinelli at me, and I understand. Here’s my justification for keeping him on the bench though: this might be a game in which we need to chase goals late on, a game in which we have to change something. The return of Alexandre Lacazette, who I’m sure will make the bench, will give us an experienced striking option, alongside a less experienced one in Eddie Nketiah. But both those guys, while providing some goal threat, do so in a fairly structured way.
Martinelli can come on and add something neither of them can. He has that energy, that willingness to run at defenders, the ability to make something happen out of very little, and if there’s a need for us to score a goal and make something happen in the final 20-25 minutes, he would be the first player I’d turn to. Depending on who else starts, there’s also Smith Rowe to add some energy, so if we’ve been critical of game-management in the recent past, let’s hope Mikel Arteta has allowed for some scenarios where he needs game-changers from the bench.
Nobody needs me to tell them how important tonight’s game is, even if that’s what was asked of Mikel Arteta at his press conference yesterday. Nobody needs me to tell them how different our summer will be, and next season, if we have European football (again something Arteta was asked like the answer isn’t blindingly obvious). There is huge pressure on the manager and the players tonight, and genuinely it’s impossible to know how we’re going to react.
After such a wildly inconsistent season anything could happen. We could be decent and still lose; we could be mostly bad and go through; Unai Emery could Unai Emery himself right in the Unai Emery; some big Arsenal players could stand up and be counted at a point where the team really needs them. I just don’t know.
What gives me some hope is that last season we overcame Man City in a semi-final, and beat Chelsea in a final. We’re struggling in the league but we could well be a very effective cup team. It’s not what we want, but it’s what we’ve got, and hopefully later on the players can perform and the manager can be decisive and make a difference from the sideline if we need that to happen.
There’s some talk of the players being cheered in tonight as more protests are planned, and I’d really like to see that happen. This is a European semi-final and we’re locked out. It’s taking away from the occasion, obviously, but not just for us, for the players too. In a packed stadium tonight, fans could bring something intangible but important to proceedings, and while nobody can be happy with this campaign as a whole, showing support for the team for a game of this magnitude would matter. It might be brief, it’s certainly going to happen outside rather than inside the stadium, but that backing could well transmit some much needed positive energy before kick-off.
Fingers crossed. Everything crossed. Come on Arsenal.
Over on Patreon we’ve got the preview podcast available with Lewis, Andrew Allen and myself available in audio and video formats, so check those out.
Until then, don’t bite those nails too hard.
The post My team for tonight + Villarreal 2nd leg thoughts/hopes appeared first on Arseblog … an Arsenal blog.