The five winners from Arsenal’s Europa League campaign

The Gunners eased through their Europa League group
The Gunners eased through their Europa League group (Picture: Getty Images)

Arsenal’s youthful and dynamic Europa League side have dazzled this season and in doing so stated their case for first-team inclusion, while their more experienced colleagues continue to stutter in the Premier League.

The Gunners booked their place in the knockout stages of the Europa League after winning all six of their group stage clashes.

To coin a phrase from Mikel Arteta’s former mentor Arsene Wenger, Arsenal played the majority of their games with the ‘handbrake off’, albeit against lesser opponents.

Arteta has a mammoth task on his hands to fix his side's league form
Arteta has a mammoth task on his hands to fix his side’s league form (Picture: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, domestically, the Gunners’ dire return of 13 points from their first 11 league games represents their worst start to a season at this stage since the 1981-82 campaign.

Veteran boss and three-time Premier League winner Jose Mourinho schooled his younger opposite number in a tactical masterclass as Tottenham put their north London rivals to the sword with a comprehensive 2-0 win last weekend.

How can Arteta stop the rot and turn the fortunes of his former club around? The answer to that quandary may lie in his supporting Europa League cast who are ready and waiting in the wings.

Arsenal FC v Rapid Wien: Group B - UEFA Europa League
Pepe has been a nightmare for defenders to handle in Europe (Picture: Getty Images)

Nicolas Pepe

The much-maligned £72million record signing has faced plenty of criticism since his arrival from Lille in 2019.

Former Arsenal boss Unai Emery wanted Premier League star Wilfried Zaha to come in, but the club overruled him and opted for a relatively unknown quantity in Pepe.

That gamble has not yet paid off but there have once again been signs that the 25-year-old could finally be ready to explode judging by his top European performances. Pepe has registered three goals and as many assists in the Europa League this season and has been much more expressive on the pitch.

However, it’s not a case of the winger being given a chance, it’s more about him actually taking it. Arteta afforded him with a rare start in the goalless draw with Leeds United, but let his team-mates down when he was sent off for headbutting Ezgjan Alioski.

Who could he replace?

If Pepe is picked again in the Premier League, it could easily be in place of the struggling Willian, who has failed to make an impact since making his summer move on a free transfer.

The Brazilian has been trialled on both wings and as a false nine but despite his lacklustre performances, Arteta has continued to pick him.

Nelson grabbed his first goal of the season against Molde
Nelson grabbed his first goal of the season against Molde (Picture: Getty Images)

Reiss Nelson

Nelson is another tricky winger that has caught the eye.

The 21-year-old academy graduate excelled at youth level but is yet to stamp his authority on the senior scene.

He went out on loan to Bundeliga side Hoffenheim in the 2018-19 campaign and earned himself 17 Premier League appearances upon his return last season.

Nelson has the ability to open up games with his energetic and direct style which he has showcased in this year’s Europa League campaign, however, more consistency from his end product would boost his chances of landing a regular starting berth.

Who could he replace?

With his ability to play on either flank, Nelson could also come in for Willian or occupy the left-wing position if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to be fielded up front.

The versatile Maitland-Niles has been a first-team regular in the past
The versatile Maitland-Niles has been a first-team regular in the past (Picture: Getty Images)

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

Maitland-Niles, the utility man, has been in and around the first team for a while, but there is still the feeling that his real potential is yet to be unlocked.

Arteta has used him as a full-back and wing-back, but it is in midfield where he prefers to ply his trade.

The club opted to keep the 23-year-old in the summer after rejecting a £15million bid from Wolves, but his appearances have mostly been limited to European competition this season.

Maitland-Niles was deployed in central midfield in the 4-1 win over Rapid Vienna and came alive as he ran the show at the Emirates with a display bursting with verve and dynamism.

Arsenal legends such as Ian Wright and Lee Dixon have talked up the prospect of the England international starting regularly in midfield, and with the likes of Granit Xhaka struggling, it may not be long until Maitland-Niles is given a chance to shine.

Who could he replace?

He would most likely come in for Hector Bellerin or Kieran Tierney with the two full-backs not covering themselves in glory of late.

Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka could also be in danger if Arteta eventually opts to deploy Maitland-Niles in central midfield.

Arsenal v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League
Willock’s excellent Europa League performances have already earned him domestic playing time (Picture: Getty Images)

Joe Willock

The 21-year-old is one of the most highly-rated talents to have graduated from Arsenal’s Hale End academy in recent years, alongside Bukayo Saka.

Willock has previously been a regular fixture in the first team, making 44 appearances in the 2019-20 campaign.

This season, he has starred in Arsenal’s Europa League campaign with three goals and three assists.

His excellent displays saw him called to action for Premier League games against Leeds United and Wolves, but he struggled with the burden of being Arsenal’s primary creator in the middle of the park.

Arteta is clearly a big fan of the England youth international, though, and praised his ‘special’ and unique abilities earlier this season.

‘He has some special qualities that only he has in this squad, and that we have to use,’ the Spanish boss said last month.

‘He’s got the ability to make [runs into] the box, his physicality and he’s grown in his understanding of the game and areas where he needs to be involved to affect the game. It’s growing all the time. I’m really happy with the way he’s evolving.’

Who could he replace?

Willock could return to the starting XI in place of Alexandre Lacazette, who has recently been deployed in a No.10 role.

Alternatively, if Arteta opts for a 4-3-3 formation in the future, Willock would be best served lining up alongside Thomas Partey and Dani Ceballos in midfield in place of Granit Xhaka.

Balogun scored his first ever senior goal for the Gunners in the Molde victory
Balogun scored his first ever senior goal for the Gunners in the Molde victory (Picture: Getty Images)

Folarin Balogun

Balogun is by far the least experienced of the five, making just four first-team appearances so far, but is arguably the most exciting.

The 19-year-old bagged two goals and an assist in just 61 minutes of Europa League action this season.

His excellent strength, hold-up play and movement in Thursday’s 4-2 win over Dundalk prompted Martin Keown to compare him to Arsenal legend Ian Wright.

Despite his limited playing time, Balogun has showcased the natural striking instinct Arsenal’s experienced forwards have been lacking of late.

The New York-born striker’s contract expires at the end of the season and he looked set to leave the Emirates back in the summer after refusing to sign a new deal.

However, speaking after the Dundalk win, Arteta revealed the teenager wants to stay and talks over a contract extension are ongoing.

Who could he replace?

With the Gunners scoring a meagre 10 goals in their first 11 league games, both Aubameyang and Lacazette are in danger of losing their place.

Balogun needs a lot more time and experience before he is ready for the Premier League, but is certainly one to keep a close eye on.

MORE : Kevin Campbell backs Mikel Arteta to go on ‘charm offensive’ to keep Ainsley Maitland-Niles at Arsenal

MORE : Fenerbahce confident of signing Arsenal outcast Mesut Ozil in January

Follow Metro Sport across our social channels, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

For more stories like this, check our sport page

No comments