Leeds United are set to take on Arsenal at The Emirates in The League Cup last 16. Ahead of our clash, we had a chat with Nathan Reynolds from The Short Fuse to exchange notes on the season so far and preview the big match.
Q: First of all, how are the fans feeling about the start to the season - it’s been a turbulent time at the Emirates but there are beacons of hope in the likes of Saka, Smith-Rowe and Martinelli...
A: Like all things Arsenal there is a wide spectrum of opinions when it comes to the start of the season. Opening with three losses saw plenty of fans calling for Arteta out and as a clear sign that the squad was still not up to par to push back into the European positions. However, Arteta is still a young manager, in a pressure role, and has been slowly improving a disjointed squad that he inherited. Saka and Smith Rowe have been wonderful breakthroughs for the academy setup, but the squad as a whole has several talented players still 24 or younger - Tierney, Gabriel, Odegaard, White & Ramsdale. If they, and players such as Tomiyasu, Martinelli, and Sambi, can improve over the course of the season the right pieces are in place for Arteta to grow with this team as they look to get back into the Champions League.
Q: One for the Leeds fans, how do you feel about Ben White. He’s held in incredibly high regard among the Leeds fans, and this was a big move for him. How does he compare to the price tag and what you expected him to be?
A: I think White will end up being a good to great signing by Arsenal. His partnership with Gabriel will be key in the coming seasons. Arsenal’s backline & keeper are all still young and could potentially play together for several years if things go well. I don’t weigh the price tag over him, just as I don’t for Pepe (but plenty of Arsenal fans do). That’s an issue at the club management level, not the players. To go from Sokratis & Mustafi to now Gabriel and White is a great transition and another example of the process Arteta is trying to work through.
Q: How seriously are Arsenal taking The League Cup? How important is it to the fan base? And would you say it’s more important now due to a downward trend in the league over recent years, or are the fans still not bothered as Arsenal should be fighting for bigger and better things?
A: I do not believe Arsenal or Mikel Arteta hold the League Cup particularly high. It’s a place for the backups or academy standouts to get match time that typically went to the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons. Arteta, and most fans, likely prefer a focus on the Premier League and climbing back up after finishing 8th once again last year. Personally, I differ on this a bit and would love to see Arsenal challenging for both Cups as the positive momentum can carry over into league play.
Q: What is the landscape like for Arteta and Edu? Is the manager well backed by the fans and board? Is Edu doing all he can to provide Arteta with the tools he needs to progress?
A: Again you’ll get a variety of answers depending on which Arsenal supporter you ask. Even if the results haven’t come yet I can see the progress Edu and Arteta have made with this squad. There was a lot of work to do in order to move on older players and trim the wage bill - plus plenty of decisions needed this coming summer (Guendouzi, Torriera, Saliba, etc.). Arsenal have spent a lot of money over the past few years, so the investment has been there by the owners and the academy is providing enough results, so Arteta and Edu will need to some improvement by the end of this year in order to continue to move forward in their roles.
Q: Is Arteta likely to feature some of the club's academy talents? If so then who should we be looking out for as a danger?
A: A lot of senior players are getting less playing time this season with no European competition, so I’d imagine the squad on Tuesday is primarily the likes of Bernd Leno, Rob Holding, Cedric, Pepe, etc. The most likely candidate to come in from the U23s recent matches would be Folarin Balogun, even though he is technically a senior team player for the first time this season. It’s highly unlikely another academy player would get a start, but perhaps one or two make the bench.
Q: How do you see Arteta setting up tactically against a Bielsa team? He’s got a good record against Bielsa so far.
A: For the most part Arsenal work with a 4-2-3-1 formation and adjust from there, so that’s the safest guess, especially with what should be mostly backups. There is always a chance he uses someone like Calum Chambers in a back three and then feature wingbacks or a 4-3-3 depending on how he wants to deploy someone like Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Q: In terms of the Arsenal squad, players like Lacazette and Aubameyang seem like players that should’ve been cleared out a while ago, even though they’re excellent at their best. Are you satisfied with the personalities and effort coming out of the dressing room? And if not, is it worth sacrificing for the sake of talent at this stage in Arsenal’s history?
A: I’m Arsenal hadn’t had so many players to offload in recent windows (Willian, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Sokratis, Mustafi, etc.) I think at least one of them would have been gone by now and a new, younger forward brought in. It seems like the right profile of player is being brought in to refresh the team, from Ramsdale (GK), White (CB), Partey (CM), to Odegaard (AM), but what may be lacking or at least isn’t evident yet is if anyone has the personality needed to lead this squad on and off the pitch, which is something Arsenal haven’t had in surplus in recent years.
Q: Finally, score predictions for the game?
A: I’m expecting a close match that might need penalties to decide a winner in the end. But considering it’s at the Emirates, Arsenal are coming off a great performance against Aston Villa, and players like Pepe, Odegaard & Leno will be playing, I’m going with 2-1 to the Gunners.
A big ‘thanks’ goes to Nathan Reynolds from The Short Fuse, and be sure to check out the reverse fixture on their site.
What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Let us know on Twitter @ThruItAllLUFC.