What To Look For As Arsenal Begin Their Europa League Campaign
After two years in the proverbial cold, Arsenal will make their return to European football on Thursday evening with a trip to Switzerland to face FC Zurich. The disappointing end to last season means that the Gunners will be competing on the continent in UEFA’s second-tier competition – the Europa League. Understandably, the goal is to be mixing it with the elite and playing for the most sought-after trophy in club football – the Champions League. However, by virtue of facing a lesser calibre of team (at least in the competition’s group stage) the Europa League offers a unique opportunity for Mikel Arteta and his young Arsenal squad. Here are some things to look out for ahead of kick-off on Thursday.
First Team Challengers
With the fixtures piling up and an unprecedented mid-season World Cup looming, rotation for clubs with European commitments is more important than ever. The physical and mental fatigue that can creep up on a squad ill-prepared to handle the rigours of travelling and playing across Europe has the capacity to derail an entire season. With the way Mikel Arteta’s side has started this season, the Spaniard will be keen to maintain freshness within his first XI for as long as possible. Equally, winning games breeds confidence and fluidity. Fringe players have a chance to feel more involved with the squad and are more ready to step into the first team for Premier League games. The difficulty that Arteta therefore faces is finding a balance between the quantity and appropriateness of the changes.
Arsenal’s investment this summer has resulted in a deeper squad, with more players capable of putting pressure on the current Premier League starters. Three of these players knocking on the door stand out – Eddie Nketiah, Fabio Vieira and Takehiro Tomiyasu. It is expected that all three will see significant game time in the group stages, starting with Thursday’s opener in Switzerland.
After his impressive ending to last season’s campaign, in which he scored five Premier League goals including a brace at Stamford Bridge, Eddie Nketiah will be itching to get his first start of the season on Thursday. His impressive cameos this season have indicated that his insatiable hunger is matched by his often underrated ability. The ‘All or Nothing’ documentary and his ‘Beautiful Game’ podcast interview offered us a window into the psyche of the young striker. His frustration at a lack of minutes and opportunities was very apparent – and something lamented by Arteta himself. He will be looking to impress and force his way into the league XI instead of or perhaps alongside star striker Gabriel Jesus.
Takehiro Tomiyasu can justifiably feel slightly hard done by to be out of the starting XI at this moment in time, having not really done anything to warrant being dropped. The nature of football dictates that availability is one of the most important characteristics a player can have. Despite delivering impressive performances at right-back which were crucial to Arsenal rising from the ashes of three consecutive defeats at the beginning of last season, the Japanese international was plagued by injury for much of the campaign.
Tomiyasu boasts the ability of being competent across the backline without significant drop-off in performance, meaning that he is certainly pushing the current defensive selections that Arteta has settled on in the league. If any positions are up for debate, it is Ben White’s slot at right-back or Gabriel Magalhaes’ role (which could see White slide into left-centre back, for clarity). Tomiyasu will be eager to give Mikel Arteta a decision to make.
One player we have seen considerably less of is Fabio Vieira. Arsenal’s surprise summer signing has been sidelined for the best part of this season with a foot injury, but made his debut for Arsenal in Sunday’s 3-1 loss at Old Trafford. Alongside some rusty moments, he gave fans an exciting look at what is to come with aggressive pass and shot selections. When asked about Vieira, Edu said the following: “Fabio is the one which probably we don’t have anyone in the squad with his characteristics” (Arsenal.com). He is expected to start in Martin Ødegaard’s attacking midfield role.
We can talk about debutants in two categories: academy debutants and the rest.
In past, Arsenal’s Europa League campaigns have seen competitive debuts for some prodigious academy talents. Hale End talismans Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe have inspired hundreds of youngsters within the Arsenal academy as they became the latest to carve the path from London Colney to the Emirates. Both made their competitive debuts for Arsenal in the Europa League. They are joined in this by the highly-rated Folarin Balogun, who has made a flying start to life on loan in France and was recently awarded Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Month.
So who might we see making their debuts this time round? 21 year-old Matt Smith was named in Arteta’s Europa League squad and has patiently waited to make his first team debut after being a part of the 2020 FA Cup-winning squad on the day.
A couple of names that Arsenal fans may be less familiar with are Charles Sagoe-Jr and Lino Sousa. 18 year-old winger Sagoe Jr has made a flying start to the U21 season, with 4 goals and an assist in 5 games. According to the Athletic, Lino Sousa has travelled to Switzerland with the squad and has been very highly-rated ever since he walked through the doors at Colney after Arsenal signed him to their academy from West Brom. At 17 years-old, the young Brazilian could be a surprise inclusion at left-back.
Outside of the academy, we expect to see Arteta hand competitive debuts to Brazilian winger Marquinhos and American goalkeeper Matt Turner as he attempts to manage Bukayo Saka and Aaron Ramsdale’s load. Arsenal fans have seen brief bits of the two in action, but will be excited to see what they can offer to the squad. Parallels have naturally been drawn between Marquinhos and Gabriel Martinelli, as Arsenal plucked another unheard of attacker from the Brazilian footballing pyramid.
A Settled Style of Play
It is no secret to anyone that has watched Arsenal over the past 12 months that Mikel Arteta has a certain way of playing that he envisages his teams enacting on the pitch. One critical mark against Unai Emery’s tenure was a perceived lack of identity, an approach that was too focussed on nullifying the opposition rather than maximising the strengths of Arsenal’s own squad.
Arteta has been able to implement his style of play to great effect this season, winning five of six in the Premier League. The loss at Old Trafford was hard to take for the Gunners, but there were surefire positives to glean from what was a dominant performance by Arsenal. What will be interesting to look out for is how Arteta’s approach in the league differs when he rotates for European games. Will we see significant changes in the way his team is set up due to the differing personnel, or will he expect his new pieces to plug in to Arteta ball instantly? We know he is just as capable of tactical tweaking as he is of an overhaul; his first trophy as a manager came in 2020 as he utilised a ‘three at the back’ formation to win Arsenal record-breaking 14th FA Cup.
Disregarding the fact that many of them have never played with each other as a collective before, replicating the impact that certain players have in demanding roles will be a tough ask for the rotation options. The gap in quality from Martinelli to Smith-Rowe for example is negligible at best, so it is not anticipated that this is where issues will lie in future. It is asking unknown quantities like Turner, Marquinhos, and Vieira to step into the starters’ shoes and obey complex tactical instructions that their counterparts have only just begun to fully understand. It will be interesting to see if Arteta demands a similar level of distribution from Turner as he does Ramsdale, or if he asks Marquinhos to maintain his width and be the consistent and reliable 1v1 danger that Saka so excellently poses.
However, there is a consideration to be made that should one of these rotation options be thrust into the league XI through injury, suspension or their own stellar performances, Arteta will not want their inclusion to severely disrupt his system. How Arteta tackles his tactics in this competition will be intriguing to say the least.
With 6 group games being played over the next 8 weeks, the games are coming thick and fast. It won’t be long before we know much more about the depth of this squad, and the manager’s satisfaction with it.
Andre Mederick, @goonerameds