With eight matches left of the Premier League season Arsenal’s only concern in it is to make sure not to let Burnley surpass us (which is quite a depressing thought), who are trailing five points behind.
The Gunners’ remaining fixtures are very cooperative in that the three most difficult opponents left consist of Manchester United away, Burnley at home and Leicester away.
Having nothing else to play for, the Europa League is our main (and should be our only) focus for the rest of this season. The circumstances pave the way for us to truly embrace players such as Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Matt Macey, Joe Willock, Vlad Dragomir and Konstantinos Mavropanos. But it’s not that easy.
Arsenal’s U23s are well within the title race in their league, and if they win the last four matches they secure the title ahead of Leicester and Liverpool. They’re also in the semi-final of the International Cup against Villareal.
(Image cropped from Arsenal.com)
So the conundrum is this: does Arsène Wenger increase their playing time in the first team to rest our best players for the Europa League, or does he prioritise the U23’s title challenge?
There are incentives for both. But seeing that Wenger has allowed Nelson and Nketiah to play for the U23s in their bigger matches this season, and that winning a title is a great experience for our prospects and probably help our recruitment of young players in the future, it’s reasonable to assume he will do so now as well.
You might think that the likes of Nelson and Nketiah can play for the first team and the U23s. To an extent yes. I’m sure they’ll get some minutes off the bench to rest some top players in the most congested periods before and after a Europa League match. However, if you look at both teams’ schedules you’ll see how counterproductive it is set up regarding the developing of academy players, and how difficult it is to fit in more playing time for our youngsters.
Here is a summary of the remaining matches left for both the first team and the U23s.
(X’s mark what matches prospects should start in, not as substitutes)
Luckily the U23 season ends April 20th, while there’s still possibly as many as five Premier League matches to play. It’s in this period the prospects should really be utilised.
From the end of the U23 season (hopefully as league winners) the first team face West Ham at home, United away, Burnley at home, Huddersfield away and Leicester away (which will be rescheduled).
In the course of these matches Nelson should be heavily featured. Nketiah should get increased playing time as well, although that is more difficult seeing we have Aubameyang who can’t play in the Europa League. The first team player that should give way is Danny Welbeck.
With Lacazette and Aubameyang on long contracts (and being faaar better) and Welbeck’s poor form and injury problems, his future at the club should be seriously reviewed. At this stage there is no reason to play him ahead of the promising Nelson or Nketiah, or anyone else in the academy to be honest…
I would also like to see Wenger introduce Mavropanos to the first team. Considering Mertesacker is done and the turbulent performances from our centre backs this season, now would be a great time to see if the Greek 20-year-old can be an asset for our 2018/19 campaign before the summer transfer window opens.
Within the same argument Wenger should put the test on Macey, who I think seemed solid in the few matches he has played. Cech has put a question mark behind his name this season and Ospina simply shouldn’t be our first choice for the future. Cech’s contract expires after next season, so if Macey impresses before the season ends we could play them both next season. This way we could spend the money perhaps going for a new goalie this summer on other important positions like centre back, right back, winger and possibly defensive midfielder.
The timing really is right for Arsenal to test our prospects and put them centre stage to see who can face the music for our next season and who should be loaned out, sold or kept in the U23s.
If not now, when? If it fails, we’re still sixth.