As much as Arsenal fans will have enjoyed putting Stoke one step closer to relegation, they can’t pretend the result has any great consequence for their own campaign. It would take something rather extraordinary for the Gunners to finish anywhere but sixth place this season: Their chances of catching the top five are remote but they still ought to have enough to see off the challenge of Burnley in seventh. Arsenal’s focus is now firmly on their Europa League campaign, starting with the quarterfinal first leg against CSKA Moscow on Thursday night.
Arsene Wenger’s team for the Stoke match was clearly picked with Moscow in mind. Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexandre Lacazette were left out of the starting XI but will all expect to play on Thursday. While Koscielny was rested from the squad entirely, the latter trio all came off the bench to good effect: the purposeful passing of Xhaka and Mkhitaryan was particularly missed in a sloppy Arsenal performance.
One man who was selected on Sunday with a chance of keeping his place this week is Danny Welbeck. The England international was deployed on the left side of the Arsenal attack, playing a supporting role wide of Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. It looked like an audition for the Europa League tie: If Welbeck impressed on the flank, he’d surely be a shoe-in for a key role on Thursday.
In truth, he fluffed his lines. Welbeck was one of the many Arsenal players who looked well short of his best, skewing one of the game’s more promising chances well wide. The only mitigation one could offer is that he appeared to hurt his back early on: perhaps he was impeded from producing his usual all-action performance.
Nevertheless, he’ll still be in contention. This is an Arsenal squad bereft of true wingers and Welbeck is probably the closest thing they have to a conventional wide forward. While he is erratic on the ball, he does have the pace to threaten in behind, and the tactical discipline to add structure to a frequently anarchic Arsenal team.
The factor that weighs most heavily in his favour is his capacity to link well with Lacazette. Although the France international replaced him on Sunday, the start of the season saw Lacazette and Welbeck combine well on several occasions. The former Lyon man can occasionally struggle with the physical aspects of the game, whicht is where Welbeck excels.
There’s also not a great deal of competition. If Welbeck doesn’t play, Wenger must choose between Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi, both of whom seem to be suffering a dramatic dip in form. Picking Welbeck would be a considerable gamble but his rivals for a place don’t exactly represent a sure thing.
The rest of the team ought to pick itself. Lacazette will lead the line, with Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil hoping to provide him with necessary ammunition to fire Arsenal into the next round. Aaron Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player against Stoke and Xhaka is certain to be restored alongside him. Koscielny will come into the back four at the expense of Calum Chambers with Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin completing the defence.
Wenger ought to give some thought to his goalkeeping situation. David Ospina has been earmarked as the club’s goalkeeper in Europe, but with the competition now so plainly the club’s priority, perhaps Petr Cech should get the nod. It would, after all, be straightforward enough to give Ospina games in the Premier League between now and the end of May. However, history shows that Wenger tends to be a man of his word on these matters: Ospina is likely to retain his place.
So Wenger’s biggest decision centres on whether to select Welbeck. The former Manchester United man has his detractors but it was he whose brace against Milan ensured Arsenal’s safe passage to the quarterfinals. The indications are that Wenger is preparing to give him another chance to impress on Thursday night. Lacazette might well be preparing for centre stage but Welbeck looks likeliest to provide the supporting act.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.