Arsenal could wrap up Europa League qualification against Molde on Thursday.
Away from domestic struggles, Arsenal are on course to book their place in the knockout stages of the Europa League when they take on Molde FK at the Aker Stadion on Thursday.
Three wins from three and nine(!) goals scored have put Mikel Arteta‘s side in a strong position to not only qualify with two matches spare but also finish in top spot. If results go their way that can be secured early enough to bed in a few of the Under-23 stars who’ve been knocking on the door of the senior group this year.
With still a long way to go before such dreams can be realised, minutes under Arteta in European competition is nonetheless an excellent way of developing their talent and giving the manager food for thought.
Based on who travelled to Norway on Tuesday, there are a few who could be in line for minutes even before the final two fixtures of the group.
Ben Cottrell – Midfielder
Unless you’re a regular viewer of Steve Bould‘s side, then Ben Cottrell may be something of an unknown entity aside from what is written about him.
That season curtain-raiser against MK Dons granted us a chance to see him in the flesh, where he came on as a second-half substitute with the match still in the balance. Even in an unfamiliar (although sort of familiar) left wing-back role he put in a solid shift, although we can expect him to slot into his favoured advanced midfield role should he feature on Thursday.
Starting his career out as a full-back, Cottrell moved into a central area as he progressed, often utilised in forward areas but with a keen eye on his defensive duties.
What will impress Arteta is his mentality. Said to be a very humble man who will do whatever is asked of him, the intelligence and maturity he’s shown has helped him stand out. Above all though, the Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard likenesses – I loathe such comparisons – have been flung about to describe his busy nature. Here, there and everywhere, Cottrell is a fighter with good technical ability and defensive awareness, who as a versatile midfield player, will encourage the boss to consider his inclusion.
Given Arsenal are thin in midfield for Molde, if the visitors find themselves in a comfortable position with 30 or so minutes left to play, Cottrell is a solid option to protect the back four and ease the strain on everyone’s weary legs.
Miguel Azeez – Midfielder
Also seen on the plane heading north is defensive midfielder Miguel Azeez. The 18-year-old has based his game around Sergio Busquets, which tells you all you need to know about his style. Or does it?
His range of pass tends to stretch further than the Spaniard (this does not indicate that he’s better, of course), and while defensive in mindset, Azeez enjoys joining up with the attacking phases where he can dictate the pace of the game from the edge of the box.
How he reads the game is more in line with an offensive midfielder, although he is someone who is best suited when he can see the majority of the pitch in front of him. Azeez has been tipped as the midfielder most likely to break into the senior fold regularly – he is still a way off – given his natural ability and the level of performances he’s been producing since the beginning of last season.
Quite confidently we can expect him to get minutes during this group stage. If not on Thursday, then definitely at home to Rapid Vienna or away to Dundalk.
Folarin Balogun – Striker
Making his senior debut against Dundalk in round two of the group stages, Folarin Balogun is pushing closest of the trio to remaining as a regular fixture in Europa League squads when (if) Arsenal progress into the knockout rounds.
What may slightly work against him is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moving centrally in the Premier League. Out on the left Arsenal can accommodate Alexandre Lacazette or Eddie Nketiah as the centre-forward, while otherwise the duo, as seen against Leeds, get no playing time at all. Due to that, the Europa League is their chance to impress, pushing Balogun further down the pecking order.
That’s unfortunate for the 19-year-old, who has the traits Arsenal have been lacking in the striker role this season. More comfortable playing on the shoulder and receiving the ball on the move as opposed to feet, he constantly stretches defences and opens the spaces for midfielders to push up towards the box.
Wrap everything up on Thursday and it’d be great to see Balogun get the nod from the start in either, or both, of the remaining fixtures.