It’s Newcastle tonight, and nothing that happened yesterday will have any bearing on what we need to do.
Speaking the press over the weekend, Mikel Arteta was asked about the fitness of Ben White and Gabriel, both of whom are doubts due to hamstring problems. At that point he was still waiting for news, but didn’t categorically rule either of them out. I saw some chat on Twitter that the Brazilian can play but that’s unconfirmed, and my understanding of the England international’s issue is that it’s pretty serious and I was a bit surprised to see him on the bench for the game last week.
However, we’re in the kind of territory where we don’t have a lot of choice and tonight’s team selection will likely involve an element of risk. Can he play two centre-halves who might break down? I don’t know. Obviously his decision will be informed by greater medical information than we have, and with Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny in midfield he has two players who could, if necessary, drop back in and do a job in defence, but obviously that’s not ideal.
Takehiro Tomiyasu plays centre-half for Japan and I would have no worries about his ability to play there for us tonight, but the consequence of that is a full back pairing of Cedric and Nuno Tavares, both of whom are the back-up options for good reason. If White and Gabriel make it, I’d like to see Tomi back at right back and I’d just go with Tavares at left back. Keep as many players in their natural positions as possible.
I’ve mentioned midfield, and I wonder if further forward we might see the return of Emile Smith Rowe. It would come at the expense of Gabriel Martinelli who was probably our most dangerous player in the derby, but one thing Arteta has to think about is our ability to change this game from the bench if we need to. I think Eddie Nketiah will continue up front, the valuable goals he’s scored of late are the kind of goals only he (in this squad) can score, so I don’t foresee any change there – and beyond that, there aren’t really any wildcards for the manager to play unless his hand is forced by an injury we don’t know about.
As for what’s at stake this evening, Arteta says:
We want to be playing in the Champions League. We’ve come so far, it’s in our hands and we want to now capitalise on that and the excitement and the opportunities there. We will really want to go for it.
I’m sure the players know that very well, and I think sometimes we take for granted how much winning is just part of their DNA. You don’t get to this level of the game without that running right through you, but obviously it’s important the manager and his staff find the balance between ensuring the players are up for it and maybe going that step too far. You could say that Rob Holding ended up the wrong side of that in derby, he was clearly fired up but it was ultimately unhelpful because of how it manifested itself.
Qualification for the Champions League is a huge motivation in itself for these players. They’ll want it on a sporting level, for the challenge and prestige it will bring next season, and for the club too after so many years without it. If we’re going to do this from every angle, you can be sure there are some very nice bonuses and incentives that will be added to their contracts if they do it too. First and foremost though, they will want it because they are professional footballers.
They don’t need be motivated any further than that. But if they did, if there’s something the manager can say to give them that extra few percent, something that might make the difference in what could be a tight game this evening, there’s plenty for Mikel Arteta to work with before he sends his players out this evening.
I’d remind them of the opening game of the season when we had Covid cases, including our two senior strikers, but were still made to play, and when we lost the Sky Sports pundits laughed and cavorted with the Brentford fans like it was some kind of light entertainment show from the London palladium. I’d reference those first three defeats and how nobody expected them to be in this position.
I’d show them that clip of the Sky Sports transfer ‘guru’ laughing and gurning at the Tomiyasu signing. I’d show them video footage of James McArthur booting Saka and not getting sent off. I’d tell them how we’re the only team in the Premier League to have had a player’s face stood on in full view of the referee and VAR and for them to take no action. I’d highlight the Gabriel Martinelli sending off at Wolves, the likes of which nobody has seen before or since, and the Martinelli goal against Brighton being ruled out for offside when they couldn’t conclusively have seen if it was offside or not.
The Man City game at home when VAR worked for them, but not for us. The furore over the postponement of the North London derby when we were accused and vilified in the media for doing nothing more than almost every other club did at some point. The rise of the weirdo celebration police who had nothing to say about other teams enjoying their victories, but who couldn’t wait to mouth off about Arsenal … time after time.
I’d harness the still simmering pain of the derby, and I’d highlight the fantastic connection that has grown between the fans and the team this season. The songs that have been sung, the support, the sense of unity, the us against them mentality that has been fostered because of the outside influences on and off the pitch. I would tell them how much ‘they’ don’t want us to do it. And finally, most importantly, I would remind them of games and performances this season which show us that we can do what it takes away from home when the pressure is on. We might be down to the bare bones and running on fumes at this stage, but it’s time to dig deep, push hard, and use all of that motivation on top of everything else to do what it takes tonight.
COME ON YOU REDS.
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