Well, that was enjoyable. A thunderbolt for Martin Odegaard’s first Arsenal strike. Gabriel’s third goal of the season, quite a nice debut year at Arsenal for the 23-year-old defender. And then to finish it off, the clinching goal and pure joy from the team seeing Mohamed Elneny score. All three, new (or returning) faces to the squad this year and a perfect opening to the tie against Olympiacos.
Now with the Gunners taking a sizeable lead back to London for the second leg, Arteta can risk using his first-choice players once again and planning to rotate for the Europa League on Thursday. Arsenal enters the weekend in 10th place, seven points behind their North London rivals, and 12 points adrift from the Champions League positions.
If this were another Premier League match I’d favor rotating more of the second choice players and focusing on the Europa League as the primary target for what remains this year. However, it’s Spurs. And Arsenal has failed to beat their rivals since December 2018. It’s been just two wins in the last 12 meetings with Tottenham, both coming at the Emirates. So how should Mikel set the team on Sunday?
- Alexandre Lacazette
- Gabriel Martinelli
- Martin Odegaard
- Dani Ceballos
- Mohamed Elneny
- Mat Ryan
- Left Out: David Luiz, Calum Chambers, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, & Alex Runarsson
- Out: N/A
- There are several pieces that are currently locked in for important matches - Aubameyang, Saka, Leno, Tierney, and Xhaka. Really when is the last time you haven’t seen Xhaka start a big match under Arteta?
- Behind them, Hector Bellerin remains the team’s best right-back, even though Cedric has improved as the season has continued. When it comes to the team’s best center back, you could make the case for Pablo Mari, Gabriel, or Rob Holding. All three have had lengthy strong runs this season as they continue to rotate along with David Luiz. For me, at the moment it’s Pablo Mari followed by Rob Holding. I would not be confident in David Luiz facing Tottenham’s front line, especially if they go looking for fouls in the box.
- In midfield, you could add Thomas Partey into that near-lock category, with only his injuries keeping him from becoming a staple in the Arsenal starting XI. Looking ahead you wonder how the midfield may look and rotate once Partey is fully fit and ahead of Granit Xhaka, but that’s a question for next season. Given the opponent, the need for safety as the fullbacks run forward, and Xhaka’s reputation with the refs, I’d be happy to see Elneny sit deep to protect the backline. But for now I’ll anticipate Granit starting.
- Up front we could see no changes from Thursday and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Odegaard looks the part and now has added his goal threat to the mix. And Arteta’s faith in Willian is finally starting to pay off, now with seven assists for him on the season. The only player with a higher assist per 90 minutes ratio this season for Arsenal, Emile Smith Rowe. And who leads in the team goal-creating actions? Pepe.
- Honestly, any combo of Pepe/Willian plus one from Smith Rowe/Odegaard works fine on Sunday. Personally, I just want to see Pepe running at Spurs’ defenders, alongside Saka, putting pressure on them early, getting them in trouble with fouls and yellow cards, and setting up free-kick opportunities around the box. Smith Rowe’s been at the club since 10, over a decade of understanding and living the rivalry with Tottenham, and he missed out on the 2-0 loss against them back in December.
How to watch
Sunday (3/14) at 12:30 pm ET / 9:30 am PT on NBCSN.
Arsenal - 2
Tottenham - 1