Whether we like it or not, the Europa League is upon us. As an Arsenal fan it feels odd being the current co-favorites in a European competition but here we are at 7/1, along with AC Milan*, to win and stamp a ticket back to the Champions League.
Many Gooners seem to be analyzing our involvement in the competition in hyperbole. More or less, the main viewpoints are:
- We play the youngsters until we reach the later stages in order to prioritize the Premier League.
- We take it seriously, employing near first choice XI’s, as it constitutes our best chance at achieving European glory and a path to the Champions League.
I feel Arsenal’s degree of engagement should lie somewhere in the middle. In order for the Europa League to reap meaningful, positive rewards we need to approach it in stages:
Meaningful Integration of Youth → Cultivation of Partnerships → Tactical Enhancement
Each value helps to embolden the next and together can help re-instill ideals that have been in short supply at Arsenal Football Club in recent years.
1. The Europa League as a Youth Development Tool…
It’s time we gave some younger and fringe players a look at competitive first-team football. Everyone knows the big names: Reiss Nelson, Rob Holding, Alex Iwobi, and Calum Chambers. All of the above have the potential to be future first team regulars providing optimism to supporters as we undergo this mini-transitional period. Furthermore, I would give a few appearances to Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Pelenda Da Silva, and Krystian Bielik who have enormous upsides and chances to fill areas of need.
All eyes seem to be on Reiss Nelson. We saw him utilized at the RWB position in preseason and we certainly need cover there, but I feel this would be to the player’s detriment. My eyes tell me he is a direct, dynamic playmaker that excels running at defenders. We need to play him in a more advanced role further up the pitch so he has the freedom to express himself in creative pockets.
2. The Europa League as a Partnership Cultivator…
The close distance partnerships on display will be interesting. By “close distance” I mean players whose general positioning are nearby, require high-touch relationships, and require good chemistry. In addition to Chambers/Holding, Maitland-Niles/Xhaka, and Giroud/Lacazette, below the three I am most looking forward to seeing for the long-term benefit of the club:
Wilshere/Elneny: This midfield pairing could help us control games due to each player’s ability in possession. Wilshere’s technical precision in tight areas and Elneny’s omnipresent availability can be vital in establishing our quick pass-and-move game helping us progress through the thirds.
Iwobi/Lacazette: These two may just have the skill sets to compliment each other perfectly. Lacazette’s ability to read the game and know when to combine and when to pull defenders away caters to Iwobi’s prowess at short-passing interplay, as well as dribbling inside into space on his right foot.
Xhaka/Wilshere: In my opinion, this is the most complete non-Santi midfield partnership. Xhaka with his range of passing and Wilshere with his ability to connect interior passes as well as beat a man off the dribble.
3. The Europa League as a Tactical Enhancer…
Our unique playing style and general approach to tactics have made us weak under certain in-game scenarios, most notably defending the space behind our fullbacks and breaking the high press. Hopefully, as we encounter unfamiliar opposition and playing styles, we can demonstrate an understanding of how to deal with our weaknesses.
There is no single key that unlocks every door, which is why we need to have a variety of tactical variation to fall back upon. Aside from simply changing shape, I feel we need to get better at the following:
- Direct play with an emphasis on winning second balls: Playing over the top of pressing teams and those that try to overrun our midfield seems the easiest way to escape pressure. This all means very little if we can’t win 50/50’s or counterpress after playing these longer balls.
- Rotating in extra midfield bodies: For a team so possession-oriented, we don’t do a great job at getting extra players centrally to maintain possession against big teams. Ozil and Sanchez come deep periodically to create that third body, but more is needed from our wingbacks. They need to read the game and know when to maintain width and when to tuck in.
In summary, I’m hoping Arsenal use the Europa League as a chance to grow holistically. We’ve gotten away from the likes of meaningful youth development and fallen behind our competition when it comes to tactical nouse. It’s a long season and we should go far in this competition, let’s use it to our advantage.
*Odds courtesy of Skybet.com
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