We entertain West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates tonight in a game with little meaning for either side.
The Baggies are certs for relegation barring an unlikely series of miracles and our season ended with a whimper on Thursday night as we were knocked out of the Europa League by the manager we sacked 18 months ago.
An interesting sidebar to our last two games (the 0-0 draw with Villareal and our win over Newcastle) was that the stand-out Arsenal performer in each game was one of our young up-and-comers: Smith Rowe in the Europa League and Martinelli against the Barcodes.
In both games our senior players were the ones who let us down and that fact surely needs to inform Mikel Arteta’s thinking as we enter the final four matches of this dispiriting league campaign.
There is no indication from the club that the manager’s position is under immediate threat, but Arteta must surely know that if there is not a very significant improvement by Christmas he will be on the way out. Fans will be back in the stadium by then and they will be making themselves heard.
How will El Patron react in these circumstances?
I am hoping, hoping, hoping that he uses these remaining fixtures to give some young players a chance to show what they’re made of.
We need game time for Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Miguel Azeez, Folarin Balogun, Tolaji Bola and others as well as the more established youngsters Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Saka.
We fans are quick to write off youth players if they don’t immediately set the world alight, but just look at the impact Joe Willock has had in his loan spell at Newcastle: five goals in 11 appearances (many as a substitute) including four in his last four matches.
Given that our team scores fewer goals from midfield than anyone else in the EPL, how much different would things have been if Willock had been given a chance in our set-up? Imagine if those five goals had been scored for us in the last few weeks? We would probably be a few places higher up the table and, who knows, a Willock goal might even have taken us to a Europa League final.
I’m not saying Joe Willock is the new Liam Brady, but perhaps there is an issue with young players being written off too soon.
So, the big question today is whether Arteta will actually roll out the young guns. I have my doubts. In his season and a half with us El Patron has shown himself much less willing that his predecessor to gamble on youth and has preferred to send out the same ‘experienced’ players to underperform again and again (Willian being the most egregious example).
Smith Rowe really only got his breakthrough (along with a more prominent role for Saka) when Arteta’s hand was forced by injuries.
I feel our manager has many good qualities but is hampered by a large dose of over-cautiousness (a condition he shares with Unai Emery). He is someone who is driven by fear of failing more than by a desire to win – a fact that, I feel, explains a lot of his decisions, not just his team selections.
He needs to throw off those mental shackles and start creating a team that goes out to have fun and score goals, not a team that takes to the pitch with guts clenched and an overwhelming fear not to mess things up.
I have some sympathy for Arteta: our gut-clenching, fearful approach is partly a result of the string of ridiculous unforced errors that have blighted our season. A significant number of players are clearly going on to the pitch thinking “I hope I’m not the one who drops a b*llock today.”
It’s a self-imposed psychological handbrake and the only players who seem relatively immune are the young ones.
There is a good case for a big clear-out of senior players this summer, with names like Willian, Pepe, Bellerin, Xhaka and Luiz at the top of the list.
In which case let’s start building our future by using these dead rubber games to blood some more youngsters and start putting in place foundations for a better campaign next season.
Will Arteta do it? I have my doubts, even though we’ll be missing Xhaka, Luiz and Mari today with injuries. Consequently I am sharing the team I would put out, followed by the team I predict Arteta will put out.
Rocky Starting 11:
Chambers – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney
Partey – Azeez
Nelson – Smith Rowe – Martinelli
My bench would include Balogun, who would get at least 30 minutes pitch time.
Likely Starting 11:
Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney
Partey – Elneny
Saka – Odegaard – Martinelli
Kick-off’s at 7pm. Come on You Gunners!