Gunners boss Mikel Arteta has several team selection headaches to resolve before the crucial Europa League round of 16 clash against Olympiacos.
There can be little doubt that Arsenal’s game against Olympiacos in the Europa League round of 16 first leg is their biggest of the season so far.
After their 1-1 draw against Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday, it seems as though European qualification through the league is now more or less impossible for the Gunners who sit in 10th, seven points off the top six and nine points off the top four.
Speaking after the frustrating result at Turf Moor, Mikel Arteta admitted his side’s league form meant the pressure was now on to deliver in Pireaus.
“Yeah, but we have that pressure,” he said. “We have the pressure of representing this club and what it means in any competition that we play we have to win it regardless of what we are doing in any other competition.
“Obviously, we know that Thursday is a massive game for us.”
So with that in mind who will he pick for such a huge occasion?
Here football.london analyses some of the selection headaches facing Arteta going into Thursday night’s crunch game.
Right back – Cedric or Bellerin?
Curiously enough Mikel Arteta chose to go for neither against Burnley, with Calum Chambers being picked to start the match at right back.
You’d imagine that won’t be the case come Thursday though, and although Cedric was left out of the squad entirely on Saturday football.london understands this was purely for rotational purposes, meaning that it will be a straight shootout between the Portuguese defender and Hector Bellerin for the starting spot.
Logic would seem to dictate that Arteta will go for Bellerin. In every big game this season the 25-year-old has been chosen to start at right-back, and if you stretch that back to last season you could argue that when fit, Bellerin has been one of the first names on the team sheet in every important match of Mikel Arteta’s managerial career.
But recently the form of Cedric has started to create a dilemma for the Arsenal boss.
The Portuguese full-back’s aggressive overlapping dovetailed perfectly with Nicolas Pepe’s desire to cut inside against Leicester, and he has shown that he is perfectly capable of delivering against high calibre opposition.
That said though, it is likely that Buakyo Saka will start the game against Olympiacos on the right wing and the link up that he and Bellerin have formed in recent weeks may just swing it in the Spaniard’s favour.
Left-sided centre back – Mari or Gabriel?
This is probably as close as it gets when it comes to a selection choice.
Due to some bizarre unwritten rule in football two left footed centre backs cannot play together in a back four which means that there is room for only one of Gabriel or Pablo Mari in the line up on Thursday.
The Brazilian took to English football like a duck to water, winning the Arsenal fans’ player of the month award three times in a row after making his debut in September.
Since the festive period though a mixture of COVID, a red card against Southampton and a loss in confidence have seen Gabriel lose the authority he once had at the back.
Meanwhile, Mari has raced ahead, starting the last three Premier League games and losing just once when he has started this season.
On a night where composure will be key, Mikel Arteta can ill-afford to take a gamble on the tendency Gabriel has to needlessly involve himself to closely with individual duels against the opposition striker.
With this in mind the assured defensive presence of Mari at the back alongside the seemingly undroppable David Luiz will surely be the most sensible call.
Left wing – Nicolas Pepe or Willian?
There are several Arsenal fans who might well argue that neither should be starting ahead of Gabriel Martinelli, but the reality is that the Brazilian seems steadfastly confined to the bench at the moment for a reason only known to Mikel Arteta himself.
The idea of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang starting on the left also seems unlikely given that Arteta has favoured him in the centre forward role in recent matches where he has found good goalscoring form, netting six times in his last five starts.
Bukayo Saka also seems a certainty to start on the right side of attack with his post-Christmas form in that position, so it seems as though the battle for the starting spot on the opposite flank is between Willian and Nicolas Pepe.
Many will argue that this is a no-brainer in the Ivorian’s favour, but Willian has began to show some of his best form in an Arsenal shirt in recent matches, contributing four assists in his last three games.
That said though, Pepe seems to have gone to another level since what Arteta described as his “click” after the FA Cup defeat to Southampton.
Most of that good play has come on the left, and given his unpredictability and goal threat against what is set to be a thread bare Olympiacos defence, surely he is the right man to start.