Having won what were probably his two biggest games of the season against Olympiacos and Tottenham last week, Mikel Arteta has earned the right to take something of a breather going into his side’s Europa League Round of 16 second leg at the Emirates.
Speaking ahead of the match the Gunners boss gave the usual answer in these scenarios of how it’s only half time in the tie.
“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if the tie was over.
“From what I’ve seen from Olympiacos and the amount of games that they have won in the last minutes and the belief that they have in that team it will be tough and they will try to put us under pressure so still a lot to play.”
Arteta is right in saying that the tie is not exactly over, but the Greek champions need a three goal swing if they are to knock Arsenal out of the competition for a second consecutive season.
The Gunners have been masters of their own downfalls at time this season, but surely even that would be beyond their capabilities.
This affords Arteta the chance to rest a few players ahead of what is another huge Premier League game at high-flying West Ham as his side look to make the most of their slim chances of qualifying for Europe through domestic competition.
With that in mind Thursday night’s match might seem like the perfect time to give Mat Ryan just his second run out for the club he supported as a boy.
But if Arteta has shown anything with his handling of the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang situation it is that he is all about the kind of message he wants to send to his squad regarding the high standards he expects of them for every game.
Playing the second choice goalkeeper even for a tie as seemingly done and dusted as this, would give off the impression that he views the tie as won, so it is likely that Bernd Leno will continue between the sticks.
Into defence though and this where we could end up seeing a few more changes.
David Luiz has started 12 of Arsenal’s last 14 matches and is probably due a rest so that he can continue his good form at the London Stadium on Sunday.
Rob Holding has been one of the Gunners best defenders this season and hasn’t played a minute since the concussion he sustained against Manchester City. He will be a more than capable deputy for the Brazilian.
Alongside him Pablo Mari will probably come into the centre of defence. Gabriel‘s goal in the first leg and miraculous late goal line clearance from Davinson Sanchez last Sunday may well go down as defining moments in Arsenal’s season, but again with the priority now being West Ham he will likely be rested.
At left back the lack of direct replacement for Kieran Tierney continues to be a problem. The Scot has started the last six matches for club, and will likely start all three for country over the international break.
By his own admission he was “knackered” after the defeat to Manchester City three and a half weeks ago, and has already had a tough time with injury this season, so resting him would be wise.
Arteta could play Cedric at left back and bring in Calum Chambers on the right which would represent the ideal scenario. However, Tierney is so crucial to the Arsenal attack that it’s difficult to see that happening.
He will probably start yet another match with Cedric continuing at right back to rest Hector Bellerin for Sunday.
While Tierney seems to tire from playing so often, one player who seems to defy biology with his energy levels is Granit Xhaka.
The Swiss midfielder has played the full 90 in every game bar one since his return from suspension on Boxing Day and is in line to continue that excellent run on Thursday.
Alongside him though Thomas Partey was showing signs of fatigue as mistakes began to creep into his game during a nervy last 15 minutes of the North London Derby.
The wise thing would be to rest the Ghanaian who is being slowly managed back to full fitness following a stop start season because of injury. Giving Dani Ceballos the opportunity to redeem himself for his second leg errors against Benfica in the Round of 32 therefore seems the sensible choice.
Nicolas Pepe will not have got the assist for what he did in the build up to Alexandre Lacazette‘s winner in the derby, but his incredible first time pass to the Frenchman was ultimately the moment of quality that won Arsenal the game.
He is starting to find a consistency to his play that warrants more game time, and with Bukayo Saka nursing a tight hamstring that saw him brought off at half time against Spurs, Olympiacos is surely the chance to give it to him.
At number 10 despite Martin Odegaard’s excellent display in the derby, he is another who has played a lot over the last few weeks. In fact in just under two months at Arsenal he has already managed more playing time than he did during his entire first half of the season at Real Madrid.
Emile Smith Rowe was excellent against Spurs and having played on the left during that match he may well be given a chance to shine in his preferred number 10 role.
Over on the left this would surely be the perfect game in which to give Gabriel Martinelli some much-needed minutes. The Brazilian did not even make the bench against Tottenham and must be growing increasingly frustrated at his lack of playing time.
The reality is though that Arteta needs to reward those who have been performing on the pitch and right now Willian is the player who is showing the better form.
Perhaps before being left out for disciplinary matters in the North London Derby we might well have expected Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to be rested for this second leg against Olympiacos.
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Whether you think it was the right decision or not though, it is vital that Arteta and his captain move on from the issue quickly in order to avoid making the issue into anything larger than it already is.
Starting Aubameyang in this match will put all rumours of a rift between the pair to bed. From a footballing point of view also his pace and finishing ability could be invaluable as the Greek champions are forced to come out and attack the Gunners as they seek to force an unlikely turn around.
Arsenal predicted XI vs Olympiacos: Leno; Cedric, Holding, Mari, Tierney; Ceballos, Partey; Pepe, Smith Rowe, Willian; Aubameyang.