Despite a tricky schedule, the Gunners defeated BATE Borisov 4-2 on Thursday to consolidate their lead atop Group H of the Europa League. They had the game under control in the first half but somehow relaxed their grip on the Belarusian club, which finished stronger in the second half with a total of 18 shots and 11 chances compared to 16 shots and 7 chances for Arsenal, according to Squawka.
Photo credit: Walcott’s Twitter account
Wenger obviously had Sunday’s early kickoff against Brighton in mind as he made 9 changes to the side that downed West Brom with only Mustafi and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager fielded a makeshift team with 4 youngsters (Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Willock and Holding), 6 benchwarmers (Ospina, Mertesacker, Elneny, Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud) and just 1 regular starter (Mustafi).
If things had turned ugly, Wenger had no Plan B because he left Cech, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Iwobi, Sanchez and Lacazette out of the squad, filling instead the bench with youngsters like Macey, Akpom, Dasilva, Dragomir, Gilmour, McGuane and Nketiah. And that audacious gamble paid off.
- Never give space to Walcott
Premier League clubs often sit deep when they face Arsenal because they know the damage Walcott can do with his pace. The Belarusian club did not want to adapt its game plan and paid a hefty price as Walcott exploited the space between Scherbitski and the backline to score two goals.
The first warning came in the eighth minute when Walcott played a one-two with Wilshere before striking the base of the post. A minute later, Walcott met a cross from Wilshere for a header that Scherbitski saved, but Walcott pounced on the rebound to tap home. Then Walcott intercepted a sloppy pass from the BATE goalkeeper in the 22nd to double the lead with a low strike. The English forward could have notched a hat trick in the 43rd but Scherbitski tipped his angled shot around the post. I thought Walcott was a bit too greedy in the 50th when he took his chance and missed the target instead of slipping the ball to an unmarked Wilshere.
Walcott definitely produced a good all-around performance. Usually, you just see the goal(s) and nothing else. Besides his 2 goals, Walcott also made 3 key passes and 10 crosses (including 5 corners), had 4 successful dribbles out of 4, won 1 of 2 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels, and made 1 interception and 1 block, according to Squawka. It doesn’t mean that he will start against Brighton, for the simple reason that the Seagulls won’t play like BATE.
- The issue with wingbacks in a 3-5-2 system
Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 formation to a 3-5-2 system against West Brom to give Ramsey more freedom. The manager relied on that 3-5-2 system again basically to accommodate Walcott, who looks more comfortable as a second striker than as an inside forward.
The main problem with the 3-5-2 formation is that the wingbacks can be left on their own defensively. It’s not a coincidence if BATE wingers Gordeychuk and Stasevich made 3 key passes each while fullbacks Rios and Volodko combined to create 3 chances.
In the 3-4-3 system, the inside forwards and the wingbacks respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers in midfield. When the team sits deep, it is then the wingbacks and the centerbacks who respectively mark the fullbacks and the wingers. In Thursday’s 3-5-2 formation, the wingbacks had no inside forwards to help them out in midfield since Walcott played as a second striker while Wilshere was in the No. 10 role.
Maitland-Niles did better defensively than Nelson, leading all Arsenal players with 5 interceptions. However, Maitland-Niles needs to improve his positional play. He left Holding in a 1v2 situation for BATE’s first goal in the 28th and should have covered Holding when the hosts scored in the 67th.
Nelson had 3 successful dribbles out of 4 and a passing accuracy of 88%, but won 0 of 3 tackles and lacked end product with only 1 key pass. In my eyes, Nelson is still too soft defensively for the wingback position. That’s the main reason why BATE mostly attacked down our right flank.
- Wilshere is building up his fitness and confidence
The manager used Wilshere as a central midfielder against Cologne. On Thursday, Wenger moved Wilshere further up the pitch to relieve him of his defensive duties and let him focus on his playmaking role. Wilshere set up Walcott for Arsenal’s first two chances. He also slipped a through ball to Maitland-Niles in the 25th. Unfortunately, Maitland-Niles lacked spontaneity and took two touches instead of feeding Giroud with a first-time pass. Wilshere faded in the second half and moved back into a deeper position when Nketiah replaced Willock in the 89th.
- The midfield lost control
The Gunners led 3-0 after 25 minutes but somehow allowed BATE to get back in the game. Elneny was teaming up with Willock for the first time. The duo made no key pass, leaving all the creating burden on Wilshere’s shoulders. Defensively, they had their flaws. Elneny won 0 of 5 tackles and 0 of 2 aerial duels, while Willock won 4 of 5 tackles, but was dispossessed 5 times, according to whoscored.com. Willock looks so much like a mini-Coquelin. I feel that he needs to simplify his game. There are times when Willock is overestimating his abilities and running into trouble instead of releasing the ball more quickly.
- The back three looked suspect
Mertesacker won just 1 of 4 aerial duels, Mustafi won 0 of 4 tackles and Holding made a couple of mistakes. Stasevich in the 20th and Gordeichuk in the 71st too easily dribbled past Mustafi. Holding scored from a corner in the 25th and hit the post from another corner in the 44th, but you don’t want him to become the new Vermaelen, i.e. a flawed defender occasionally finding the net.
Holding didn’t look out of his depth like in the Cologne game. He even won more tackles than Mustafi and more aerial duels than Mertesacker. But he needs to get rid of his naivety. Holding was penalized in the 40th for making a rash tackle after giving the ball away. And he was the main culprit on BATE’s second goal. Volodko beat Mertesacker in a foot race to make a cross in the 67th. Holding lost his footing, allowing Ivanic to head the ball. Ospina made the save but Gordeichuk followed up to slam the rebound home.
- Giroud scored his 100th goal for Arsenal
The France striker had not scored since the Leicester game on opening day. He ended that bad run of form by converting a penalty in the 49th after Dragun had pulled Mustafi’s shirt inside the area. Giroud didn’t get much service throughout the game. However, he proved a solid target man, winning 4 of 4 aerial duels.
- Ospina had a decent game
Some fans complained about Ospina’s performance. Well, there’s not much he could do about BATE’s goals. Ivanic’s header from 8 yards had too much power in the 28th while Ospina could only make a reflex save in the 67th to parry the Montenegro midfielder’s header from 6 yards. To his credit, Ospina palmed away a glancing header from Signevich in the 57th and stopped a low drive from Stasevich in the 75th.