Thursday offers fans a chance to really see Unai Emery and the Arsenal players. This was undoubtedly Emery’s worst week as the Gunners manager - losing three Premier League matches in eight days - pretty much ending any shot of reclaiming St. Totteringham’s Day.
Several individuals made crucial error that cost Arsenal points and the chance to solidify fourth place, if not higher. Shkodran Mustafi, well, he Mustafi’d. Even if you want to argue the fouls, Ainsley Maitland-Niles still took the risks and left his team hanging for 60 minutes. Emery gambled, thinking a weaker lineup could take care of Crystal Palace at home. He was mistaken in his faith that the Emirates provided some secret magic.
And while it’s easy to look back at those mistakes, argue for a better starting lineup, a better formation, or how it’s all a sign of how much work is needed in the summer, none of that matters right now, in this moment. Sure, maybe highlight a few tactical things on Monday in practice, but Arsenal’s heads can’t live back in that space - not with such an important match looming Thursday.
How We Got Here
Before the Premier League season kicked off, many didn’t think Arsenal was strong enough to challenge for the top four. Emery needed multiple transfer windows to reshape the squad into his style of play and correct roster issues that were handed to him. Unai had a wonderful track record in the Europa League, so a strong push for that trophy again and then signs that Arsenal were at least close to the top four were realistic expectations in August.
A 22 match unbeaten streak, and topping their Europa League group without a loss, suddenly altered the landscape. Arsenal could finish in the top four. We would be strong contenders for the Europa League trophy once again. Rob Holding was proving far more crucial to 2018/19 than expected, while Sokratis and Matteo Guendouzi looked like great value pickups by the club.
There were a few slips along the way, but last week’s three match losing run was the one true stain on the season. And everyone pounced. Emery is a fraud. The players aren’t good enough. This is why we have to spend more money.
If those three loses had been spread out over the year and today Arsenal sat two points out of 4th place and in the Europa League semi-finals, would there be such an uproar? The consecutive losses are hard to take. The timing in the season makes it that much more so. But collectively Europa needs to be the focus, and confidence must be found.
Ignore League Results, Remember How You Got Here
In Europe, Arsenal have won three straight, scoring six goals and giving up zero. Yes, they have a giant Ramsey sized hole now in the team that put together those performances, but otherwise the team needs to remain intact. Ozil and Xhaka traded spots in the starting XI across the Napoli tie, but both will be needed to get past Valencia.
Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis, and Nacho Monreal are your back three. Even if that means playing a weakened back four in the Premier League Sunday. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac need to continue bombing forward. They are most effective adding width to the attack and sending in crosses, allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to stay central. Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka can drop back as needed to help the defense shift while the wingbacks push forward. Possess the ball, work out of the back, but keep the two center mids in positions to keep the backline safe.
Up top, start the dynamic duo again. They will produce, they have too much quality for it not to break back through eventually. These games are too important to save one for late in the match. Go on the front foot early. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan can be brought on in the 2nd half if needed.
Then there is Mesut Özil. It’s been a difficult year for him. Between the World Cup, a series of injuries and a long relationship-building process with the new manager, Özil has had a season to forget. We know he has the talent to win the Europa League for Arsenal. We know he has said he wants to stay at the club beyond this season. This leg against Napoli - now with Aaron Ramsey sidelined - is his best, last chance (at least this year), to show the Arsenal faithful.
The most important thing Thursday offers is a clean slate - a chance to put those Premier League results behind them. A chance to get the advantage towards the Europa League final. A chance to fix the end of the season before an important summer. Arsenal haven’t taken many of their chances lately, but this one is too big to pass up.