Having got their act together in the Premier League on Saturday, Arsenal must do the same tomorrow night in the Champions League. The visit of Olympiakos to The Emirates offers the chance to put some points on the board before the double-header against Bayern, where points will be at a premium.
Before the defeat in Zagreb, Arsène made it clear he would rotate the XI with the lack of recovery time between that match and the visit to Stamford Bridge. It didn’t end well; Olivier Giroud’s dismissal and a poor performance generally undermined any hopes of taking points from a fixture that Wenger would have marked down as one where a win was central to progressing from the group.
That result means tomorrow is a must-win match in that sense. Even though Dinamo aren’t expected to take points from Bayern, they meet Olympiakos in a head-to-head and can add to their points tally, maybe even taking it to nine points. That total puts Arsenal under immense pressure if they have less than four points at the same stage. A lot of ifs, buts and maybes but it underlines the pickle that defeat in Zagreb has put Arsenal into.
Of course, there’s always the question of why Olympiakos are here in the first place. The match-fixing allegations brought against their president are due to be heard in the next couple of months by which time the group stage will be all but over. It seems likely that the club will face sanction if his guilt is proven and UEFA has created the potential for an unholy mess if expulsion is the answer.
If they expunge Olympiakos’ record from this years, competition, Arsenal or Dinamo may unfairly benefit as the team which takes most points from them suffers the greater loss whilst assuming they have no skeletons in their own closet, Panathinaikos will no doubt argue that they should have been in the group stage and not in the final knockout round, where they were eliminated by Club Brugge.
The temptation to rotate heavily must be there once more, particularly after the win at White Hart Lane. Arsène trusted his second-string XI and this time they responded, for the most part. He can’t do the same tomorrow though, not least because he will seemingly not have Mathieu Flamini available after his hamstring twang at Leicester.
In any case, I doubt it will be wholesale changes and with four or so days to recover before facing Manchester United, is there much need to rotate so heavily this early in the season? Last Wednesday’s win at White Hart Lane changed the emphasis on the visit to Leicester; Arsenal, instead of being a club in crisis on the back of three consecutive defeats, had steadied the ship, even if it were a much-changed line-up to the one which kicked off at the King Power Stadium.
There will be changes, I am sure, but I doubt one of them will be to rest Hector Bellerin. In his absence, Mathieu Debuchy endured torrid evenings in Zagreb and Middlesex. He may point to the lack of protection he received in both cases from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell but his positioning was as, if not more, worrying.
This is an experienced right back who, through a chain of unfortunate events, has been ousted from the starting XI by a talented youngster who has the determination and consistency to keep himself in the forefront of the manager’s mind when it comes to team selection. Debuchy openly admitted that he considered leaving the club in the summer which, to me at least, was at once understandable and concerning.
Whilst he wants to win trophies, Debuchy has to consider his international career as well. He won’t add to his twenty-six caps if he is not in Arsenal’s first XI unless there is a paucity of French right backs. And having turned thirty, he knows he is in the final straight as far as his career is concerned. He wants regular first team football and judging by his last two performances, it won’t be coming soon at Arsenal unless Bellerin is struck by injury.
It’s a chicken and egg situation. Lack of match sharpness is a major factor in Debuchy’s ‘decline’ but he won’t get the matches he needs to return to his level whilst Bellerin continues to perform. It’s hard to see him remaining at the club under those circumstances but with at least forty games remaining this season, there is plenty of time for his situation to change.
Arsène will no doubt hold on until next summer before allowing him to leave. Carl Jenkinson’s loan spells at West Ham will have made him ready to meet expectations at Arsenal in which case, Debuchy is surplus to requirements anyway.
But Debuchy isn’t the sole problem on the right side. Leicester, Spurs, Dinamo; three recent games where goals have come from that side of the pitch. A bigger issue for Arsène to ponder is the lack of protection which is afforded his right backs by those further up the pitch. Zagreb and Leicester were the eye-catching matches with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain culpable in those matches.
He’s in a phase at the moment where his defensive errors are costly; it will pass but is something that I am sure the coaching staff and player are working to address but eradicating that part of his game needs to happen quickly, if for no other reason than his own confidence. How often in the past have we seen a player try ‘too hard’, only to exacerbate the problem? He has enough talent to be one of the best right-sided midfielders in this country for years to come but if he is to usurp Aaron Ramsey from the starting XI, this run of poor concentration needs to end. And quickly.