With Arsenal beginning their Europa League campaign at Bundesliga outfit Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday evening, most supporters will be feeling the sense of dread and nothingness that comes with yet another season spent in Europe’s second-tier competition. The group stages are particularly gruelling – there is quite literally nothing to gain from playing these six matches.
There’s virtually no way the Gunners won’t qualify for the knockouts, and with the expectation on them to take maximum points from every fixture, every match is theirs to lose. Escaping the group stage without any damaging defeats will be the goal, as will avoiding injuries to key first-team players.
Danny Welbeck was a victim last season, breaking his leg in what turned out to be his final appearance for the North London outfit, and Unai Emery will be anxious to avoid a repeat of that experience, which left the squad short on versatile attacking options later in the season.
With that in mind, here are three players on the fringes of the first team, who will hopefully be receiving extended minutes in the Europa League group stage, looking to build their first-team match experience and push for selection in the Premier League.
After the sales of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi in the summer, Nelson has suddenly found himself on the edge of the starting XI for the Gunners, earning two starts in the Premier League this season.
While the youngster – who spent last season in the Bundesliga on loan at Hoffenheim – showed flashes of brilliance in both games, it is clear that he is not yet experienced enough to hold down a regular spot for the Gunners in the Premier League.
Enter the Europa League, and a chance for Nelson to get extended minutes on the pitch, particularly with the absence of Alexandre Lacazette meaning Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will likely take the striking duties, and not a spot on the wing, in the early fixtures.
Nelson has already tasted Champions League football and should find the Europa League a competition to excel in, building his confidence and experience running at defences and getting into the box to be a goalscoring option.
Five or six sets of 70-90 minutes in a European environment will be integral to Nelson’s continued development, with a regular place in the starting XI for Arsenal’s Premier League the long-term goal.
Impressed at the heart of Arsenal’s defence last season, with the Gunners conceding just 0.87 goals in fixtures he started, well down on their overall season average. Competent and composed, Holding’s 2018/19 season was cruelly cut short by an ACL injury against Manchester United.
Now back in full training, the Englishman is likely to be reintegrated into the squad in the first half of the season through the League Cup and Europa League, building his minutes and confidence in Arsenal’s backline.
There’s pressure on Holding to readapt to high-level football quickly though: Arsenal’s defence has been nothing short of calamitous this season, with both first-choice defenders Sokratis and David Luiz making a series of high-profile errors.
Holding is not the type of defender that will put himself in the position to make these errors, and having someone calm and composed in the Premier League can only serve to benefit the Gunners. He needs to impress Unai Emery in the Europa League for that to become reality.
Emile Smith Rowe
The find of the Europa League last season, Smith Rowe impressed with his powerful dribbling and willingness to burst forward on the break, scoring in the group stages last season.
Injury has halted his progress since and left Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson ahead of him in the pecking order of Arsenal’s attacking options. Now on the fringes of the squad, the Europa League group stages looms as the perfect opportunity for Smith Rowe to impress Unai Emery once again.
Able to play on the left, through the centre or down the right, Smith Rowe’s flexibility should see him get a number of starts in the group stage, and he’ll be aiming to build his experience and contribute decisively in both build-up and the final third this campaign. One to watch closely.