Arsenal face Dundalk on Thursday with changes expected.
Top spot is wrapped up, Dundalk are yet to earn a point in Group B and a potentially season-defining Premier League fixture awaits Arsenal on Sunday. Changes will be made.
Among those are the expected starts for Folarin Balogun and Emile Smith Rowe, while in central midfield there are grounds for a repeat of the 4-1 win over Rapid Vienna.
Mohamed Elneny returned for the previous round with a mixed display, one that showed signs of rustiness and a lack of sharpness, all of which was expected following his isolation period having contracted COVID-19. He should still get the nod.
Alongside him was the surprise inclusion of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who for the first time in a blue moon was given the chance to impress in his favoured position.
It harks back to the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain days, where necessity prompted a positional switch, one that ended up sticking and ultimately led to his desire for a move elsewhere. On the rare dabbles in the centre of the park – Southampton away in the FA Cup springs to mind – he shone.
And while a heavily weakened Austrian side are no comparison to one of the Gunners’ bogey grounds, the ease with which Maitland-Niles took to the role presents an option that mustn’t be returned to the scrapbook.
Mikel Arteta will demand consistency from Maitland-Niles in that position before he disrupts his fractured Premier League status quo, with another opportunity to stake him claim set to come at the Aviva Stadium.
In Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, Arsenal have two midfielders either incapable or restricted from playing deeper in the opposition half. Maitland-Niles’ athleticism and pace add threat and disruption to central areas, as witnessed with his aggressive surges in the inside right channel against Rapid Vienna. Some of his one-touch passing, with subsequent movement off the ball(!), brought a pleasant change of tune.
Normal circumstances would insist that regular minutes in central midfield be required, but the state of Arsenal’s flaccid central zone are a far cry from the norm. Change is no longer needed. It’s demanded.
Arteta will be keenly watching on at the Hale End graduate, as the decision to field him in his ideal slot can’t have been born out of tied hands, but with a genuine eye on another option ahead of this testing period.