Over his two decades managing Arsenal Football Club, Arsene Wenger has developed a penchant for galvanising his team into a strong finish to the current season and achieving the board’s target of a top 4 finish. Last season, the magic finally wore off and Arsenal dropped to 5th place and a berth in this season’s Europa League competition after 2 decades of Champions League qualification. This season has seen the tumultuous trend started by last season’s struggle continue, and the Gunners now find themselves in 6th place in the Premier League with only the Europa League left to play for.
Wenger has admitted publicly that Arsenal will be prioritising success in the Europa League over the Premier League, as it represents their most realistic opportunity of returning to Europe’s premier competition. The road to European silverware will not be an easy one, as Spanish power Atletico Madrid still remain in the competition and are favourites to win the trophy. We at Arsenal Insider have asked our writers each to choose the player they believe will be most important in the Gunners’ quest for Europa League glory.
Marco – Petr Cech (Ospina)
Despite the recent upturn in form has brought back a long forgotten sentiment of optimism around the club, I am keeping my feet on the ground. It is true that the wins against Milan and Watford were quite impressive not only because they came at a time where morale was at rock bottom, but also because the performances by Arsenal gave off a sense of stability we have too often missed. However, I think it would be too hopeful to expect this stability to become commonplace.
For this reason, I think the performances of our goalkeepers, whether it’ll be Cech or Ospina playing more, will be essential. Especially as we progress in the knock-out stages of the Europa League, where every goal can be the difference between success and failure. Of course, Arsenal is at its best when the likes of Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Wilshere are up to their best, but being solid at the back will be crucial to keep us in matches where our creative players may be misfiring. The small margins between a good and a great keeper, are those result-saving stops when they are most needed.
Although Arsenal often dominate possession and the tempo of a match, we tend to concede too many chances to opposition, and since I do not see that trend reversing any time soon, having our shot-stopper playing at the top of his game will be crucial.
Art de Roché – Henrikh Mkhitaryan
With Henrikh Mkhirtaryan joining in January along with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang both were touted for big things. Of the two January signings however, I think he could be the more influential this season.
As we move into the business end of the year, the only chance we have of silverware is the Europa League, a competition that Mkhi and play in but Aubameyang can’t.
It’s not just that though. The current Armenian player of the year also has experience winning the Europa League from his time with Manchester United. Of his six goals in his Europa League campaign last year, the most important came in the final as he helped United to get back to the Champions League.
With him in a similar position this year I’m hoping he can produce similar results. Since arriving at Arsenal, he’s bagged five assists as well as getting on the scoresheet himself a couple of times so his form suggests he can produce those results. Also, with CSKA Moscow being our next opponent in the competition it’s probably good to know that Mkhi’s already managed to score against them this season back in September.
So, more of the same please, Henrikh.
Devanté – Hector Bellerin
In the past, the Gunners haven’t been short of talents in the right-back position and it’s, a position they’ve always had the best talents and prospect thrive in. Current right-back Hector Bellerin is a player known to be an explosive talented defender, who broke into the Gunners first team in recent times – having benched Mathieu Debuchy, one of France’s then right-back.
Hector this season, in my opinion, hasn’t recaptured the performances he displayed in 2015 for the Gunners, which is his best ever season thus far for the Gunners, that earned him being the only Arsenal player in the PFA Team of the year.
Yes, Bellerin was that good and he showed all the attributes a modern-day right-back must have, speed, efficient crosses, fearlessness, take-ons, defending, positioning, you name it and Bellerin displayed such attribute in 2015. The group stage match against Bayern Munich at the Emirates is self-explanatory to Bellerin’s talent, as he could single-handedly inspire the entire team when they needed inspiration.
This season hasn’t been it for the young Spanish fullback who recently turned 23, and although he’s scored three goals for the Gunners which is his best scoring season for Arsenal, his performance hasn’t been tasteful on a number of occasions. If the Gunners are to be dominant in the Europa League and hand Wenger his first European laurel in what may be his last season for the Gunners, players like Hector Bellerin must dig deep to inspire the entire team.
Kevin Coupland – Laurent Koscielny
Comparing Arsenal’s spend on defensive reinforcements with investment on attacking talent (over the last twenty years) shows a deliberate strategy to spend big on offensive talent with defensive personnel made up of lower value and lesser-known commodities or nurtured homegrown talent. The result is a team who can create chances and score goals but struggle defensively with a problematic habit of conceding goals early which in turn makes the task of our attacking players insurmountable given the requirement to score multiple times and to breakdown teams committed to defending a lead.
If Arsenal are to be successful in winning the Europa League they will need to prove they can defend under pressure in the latter rounds including the final itself. Whilst Monreal has been Arsenal’s standout performer this season, there is limited impact he can have from left back meaning it is the centre of defence where a solid and reliable presence will be pivotal, Koscielny is still undoubtedly our best central back even in the face of lazy journalism touting him as finished. Suggestions that he performs better alongside a complimentary commanding presence and isn’t as vocal as is needed from captain are valid critiques but given his quality as a sweeper, 1 vs. 1 defender and reader of the game, he is still most likely to provide the required defensive platform for success. Controlling games and creating chances are important but without Koscielny producing defensive performances at a world class level, success on the big stage will be impossible.
Clayton – Granit Xhaka
Granit Xhaka is constantly slated for not being skillful enough to hold his own in the Arsenal midfield. Social media has tended to magnify the weaker sides of his game, but it’s true that we’ve all been yearning for more from him this season. Well, three straight Arsenal wins have been a result of a new sense of purpose within the team. This is doubly true for Xhaka.
He possesses the same great ball control and passing accuracy as usual. But, there’s a new side to his game. It appears he’s taken it upon himself (or received direct instructions) to track back more often. In situations where the centre backs get caught out, Xhaka seems to be in the right place at the right time. Especially in the Milan games, he was a key reason for the team only conceding one goal in two legs.
If Arsenal are going to finish the season strong and have a shot at winning the Europa League, Xhaka’s needs to consistently perform well in his new, multi-faceted role.
Nate Smith – Aaron Ramsey
If Arsenal are to go all the way and win the Europa League, they will need every player to step up their performance and give every ounce of effort. It will take all 11 players pulling their weight to have a chance at the trophy, but the Gunners will also need outstanding individual performances out of their best players. Mesut Ozil may have the highest wages and the worldwide reputation as a classy player, but for the Gunners, no player matters more in the big matches than Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman has been phenomenal this season when healthy, and he has become an indispensable member of Arsene Wenger’s strongest starting XI. The indefatigable Ramsey has been a consistent goal threat this season from his centre midfield role, scoring 8 in all competitions and assisting a further 7, including a goal and an assist in his 2 Europa League appearances.
Ramsey was equally vital to the Gunners’ success, if less consistent, last season when Arsenal were set up in a 3-4-2-1 and needed his work rate in the centre of the pitch next to the comparatively stationary Granit Xhaka (though the Swiss midfielder does cover a surprising amount of ground per match). This season, he has been even better since the switch back to 4-2-3-1, and his knack for arriving unto the box at just the right time is as developed as ever. When considering Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is cup tied for the Europa League, Ramsey becomes even more important. The 27 year old has so much license to get forward, he almost functions as a support striker when the Gunners attack, even providing an aerial threat for his teammates to pick out as he arrives in the box. With the 5’9 Alexandre Lacazette likely to lead the line once he returns from his knee injury, this side of Ramsey’s game is even more important.
Aaron Ramsey’s attacking contribution, especially in the biggest of matches like last season’s FA Cup final, cannot be questioned, but equally important to Arsenal’s Europa League chances is his defence. The Welshman doesn’t lack for effort in his own end, putting in the hard running to track back (most of the time) and make nearly 3 defensive actions per match, but he is not a natural defender. When in a good vein of form, Ramsey can be an incessant pest to the opposition, hurrying their passes and forcing mistakes, but he also has a tendency to play out of control in some situations, causing him to commit a silly foul or badly miss a tackle. If Arsenal are to limit their opponents scoring opportunities, they are going to need the composed and controlled Ramsey to show up to play.
Of course, the biggest concern surrounding Ramsey’s performance in the Europa League is whether he will even be available at all following the surgical procedure he had to correct a chronic muscular problem in his hamstring and groin area. The club have said it was a minor operation, but so far there hasn’t been much news regarding a return date. However, should Ramsey make it back on the training pitch in April, there is little reason why he couldn’t be around to help the Gunners should they make the Europa League final on May 16. One thing is for certain, if Arsenal end the year with a trophy celebration in Europe, Aaron Ramsey will have had something to do with it!