Given the ever-increasing importance of the Europa League to our season, only a convincing win will do for Mikel Arteta’s men when Slavia Prague come to town tonight (Thursday).
The Gunners have largely withered away in the Premier League and, barring an extraordinary late run of results (not impossible) they look likely to finish in and around where they have spent most of this campaign, marooned in mid-table.
In and of itself, that would represent a disappointing result for Arteta in his first full season – and that is a generous assessment. Indeed, many would consider it an abject failure which is why so much now rides on a successful European campaign.
For all their pluck in the current campaign, Slavia Prague are not Real Madrid so failing to get a result will be a huge blow. Across two legs, the Gunners should have more than enough to win and win well but concentration will be key.
Against Liverpool and West Ham, flat-footedness and general lethargy have seen us ship six goals and pick up just one point. The team has also cultivated a habit of self-destruction and plain stupidity in recent times and all of those factors make a potentially toxic cocktail in cup competition.
Slavia are unlikely to try to play us at our own game away from home so I would expect them to sit tight and bide their time. After all, it makes no sense to put yourself out of the running in the first leg.
The priority is, of course, preventing an away goal but, if lockdown football has shown us anything, it’s that empty stadiums can be a great leveller and home advantage is not what it was. Conceding at home isn’t ideal but we can feel much more confident about getting results away from home now than in years gone by. The focus, therefore, should be on having something to protect for the second leg.
Much still remains unclear about who will be available for the first leg owing to late injury assessments and the manager’s gamesmanship but it looks likely that we’ll be welcoming back Granit Xhaka and Bukayo Saka. We may also see Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard but doubts still remain about the midfield pair.
If, by some miracle, all are fit, we can expect to see a pretty healthy attacking side with the only question marks around who fills in at left back with Kieran Tierney likely to miss the remainder of the season through injury. Does Saka drop to left back with Gabriel Martinelli or Willian ahead of him? Does Cedric do a job there with Saka ahead of him and Willian on the right? Where do Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe fit in?
The manager’s preference for flexibility means it’s difficult to guess what he might do but I suspect we’ll see Cedric tasked with dropping in at left back with Willian ahead of him and Saka on the right. There is a greater degree of technical security in that combination with the least possible defensive sacrifice but, in truth, there’s no telling what will happen until the team is announced.
Sunday sees us return to action in the Premier League with a trip to Sheffield United. It’s as close to a dead rubber as we’re likely to get this season so tonight is the opportunity to put the pedal to the metal and give the Czech side a real run around, knowing we can bring a few fresher legs in the for the weekend.
After the Liverpool debacle, it’s the least we should expect.