The Gunners increased their lead atop Group H of the Europa League to five points with a 1-0 win in Belgrade. Thursday’s result also means that they will qualify for the knockout phase of the competition if they beat the Serbian side in two weeks at the Emirates.
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The Premier League still remains the top priority as Wenger made 9 changes to the side that lost 2-1 at Watford with only Cech and Elneny retaining their starting spots. The manager took no risk with his first-choice players by leaving Koscielny, Monreal, Bellerin, Kolasinac, Ramsey, Xhaka, Iwobi, Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil at home while filling the bench with youngsters from the academy.
Belgrade had the better chances, sitting back to hit the visitors on the fast break. But Arsenal’s enthusiasm made the difference. Despite a hostile crowd in a packed stadium, youngsters like Nelson, Maitland-Niles and Willock rose to the occasion. The Gunners made more interceptions (15 to 9) and won more tacles (14 to 11) than the Serbian side, according to Squawka.
- The 3 Stooges
You can’t really complain about a scrappy win when your back three is made up of Elneny, Holding and Debuchy. They were lucky to come away with a clean sheet but at least they didn’t prove as farcical as the 3 Stooges.
Elneny’s performance was a mixed bag. He led the team with 4 interceptions and made a crucial sliding tacle to prevent Srnic from pulling the trigger in the 46th minute. But his positional play can be dodgy. In the 54th, Elneny gave the ball away to Srnic, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.
Holding had a low-key performance. He showed more composure than against Cologne but could have done better to stop Snric’s cross in the 31st. Radonjic controlled the ball only to have his close-range effort parried by Cech.
In his first start of the season, Debuchy relied on his experience and reading of the game to adjust to a new position. Wenger made that gamble in part because Sagna and Monreal successfully made the transition from fullback to centerback. At 5’10, Debuchy is not a tall defender. Yet, he still managed to win 5 of 5 aerial duels, according to Squawka.
- Wilshere as an alternative to Ozil?
Ozil might leave the club in January so it would make sense to have a couple of options in the playmaking role. Iwobi is a possible alternative but he lacks consistency. Against Belgrade, Wilshere was in charge of pulling the strings. In the opening minutes, he fed Walcott, who had an opportunity to shoot but tried to dribble past 2 defenders and lost possession. Then Wilshere made an interception in the 10th but misread Giroud’s run while delivering the final ball. In the closing minutes, Wilshere initiated the play that led to the winning goal. The nifty one-touch passing brought back memories of the goal he scored against Norwich 4 years ago.
Wilshere definitely impressed against Belgrade but the Europa League is not at the same level as the Premier League. Because play is faster in the Premier League, Wilshere would need to take fewer touches than in the Europa League. I noticed that Wilshere has lost a bit of pace over the years because of the repetition of injuries. Wilshere had 4 turnovers against Belgrade, according to whoscored.com. Against stronger opposition, that turnover rate could double.
- Call Giroud for improbable goals
In his first years at the club, Giroud could be a frustrating striker to watch because he would miss sitters while scoring difficult goals. The Frenchman has become more efficient as he’s getting older. He can now add an overhead kick to his collection of improbable goals. Walcott headed the ball into the path of Giroud, who catapulted it into the top corner for the winner in the 85th. Until that goal, Giroud’s performance was relatively mediocre. Having no decent service, Giroud sometimes tried to shoot from unfavorable positions. He led the team with 5 turnovers and had only 2 of 5 shots on target.
- Nelson is learning fast
The difference between the Borisov game and the one in Belgrade is that Nelson was more focused on his defensive duties. He made a crucial sliding tackle on Radonjic in the 24th and even killed a counterattack with a cynical foul in stoppage time. Nelson finished the game with 3 interceptions and 2 blocks. He also led the team with 77 passes, which is an implicit acknowledgement of his quality by his teammates. However, the 17-year-old player still needs to work on his end product. Nelson had one scoring chance, an angled shot turned around the post by Borjan, but made no key pass.
- How to recognize an Arsenal team
Whether it’s the first-choice players or a second-string team, the defensive frailties of the Gunners remain the same. Belgrade led dangerous counterattacks in the 12th, the 20th and the 68th from 2 Arsenal corners and a Wilshere free kick. The Serbian side also created chances from crosses in the 31st and 52nd. The hosts should have opened the scoring in the 26th when Boakye capitalized on some lax marking from Walcott and Elneny to head a corner onto the post. I’m no fan of catenaccio but you still need to get the defensive basics right.
- Who should take Xhaka’s starting spot?
Xhaka’s poor performances since the start of the season mean that the manager might give the holding midfielder role to another player. In Wenger’s 3-4-3 system, only Ramsey is safe in central midfield: the Wales international’s work-rate and movement in transition make him too valuable despite his tactical indiscipline.
Coquelin teamed up with Willock in central midfield against Belgrade. Unsurprisingly, the passing quality was low. Coquelin and Willock combined to win 7 of 13 tackles and make 3 interceptions and 4 blocks, according to Squawka. In the 80th, Coquelin was elbowed in the face by Rodic, who received a second yellow. A few minutes later, Coquelin seemed to pick up a leg injury and was replaced by Sheaf.
Willock and Coquelin have pretty much the same profile: both are hard-working midfielders but with limited passing skills. Maybe a more creative player like Wilshere would be a better choice in the holding midfielder role. Wilshere played in that position with England when Hodgson was in charge. The key question then would be whether Wilshere can also contribute defensively.
- Walcott did his bit
Walcott’s work-rate and all-around game are not good enough to get a starting spot in the Premier League. But his flair for being in the right place at the right time makes him an interesting option against weaker opposition. Walcott should have found the net in the 15th when the Belgrade defense failed to clear a Wilshere free kick. The loose ball fell to Walcott, whose low strike was stopped by Borjan’s leg.
Most fans would think that Walcott had a poor game because they barely noticed him. But that’s what Walcott does: he disappears from the game for long spells before occasionally re-appearing in the final third. His stats are quite good with 2 of 3 shots on target and 3 key passes, the most for any player.