The Gunners took control of Group F in the Europa League by thrashing Standard de Liège 4-0 on Thursday to move 3 points clear of the Belgian side and Frankfurt. They also earned their second straight clean sheet in that European competition, allowing just 12 shots compared to 24 against Frankfurt.
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Emery made 10 changes to the side that drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Monday with only Torreira retaining his starting spot. The makeshift team looked a lot like the one that knocked Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup.
Emery clearly emphasized youth in his team selection. At the exception of Mustafi and Martinez, both 27, all the players were 24 or younger: Bellerin 24, Holding 24, Torreira 23, Ceballos 23, Tierney 22, Maitland-Niles 22, Willock 20, Nelson 19, Martinelli 18. According to the club’s website, it was the second youngest starting lineup fielded by Arsenal in European football.
There are two advantages in playing youngsters. First, they are still learning the ropes and will more easily follow a manager’s instructions than veteran players. And second, they have plenty of energy to press high up the pitch. Liverpool’s gegenpressing game is all about work-rate. Likewise, Manchester City’s high-intensity football also requires a significant work-rate.
- Martinelli stole the show
He scored 2 goals and made 1 assist on Thursday. Emery has cautiously handled Martinelli’s development so far, giving him his first start in the League Cup where he netted twice against Nottingham Forest. The Spanish manager waited for another home game to give him his second start. Les Rouges are a better side than Forest, so it was a calculated risk from Emery to see whether Martinelli could perform at a slightly higher level.
Martinelli opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a glancing header into the far corner. He then doubled the lead in the 16th by taking a pass from Nelson before firing into the bottom corner. The Brazilian teenager had many chances in the second half to notch a hat trick but his finishing touch deserted him. He curled a shot wide in the 48th, slipped before pulling the trigger in the 50th, missed the target with a sliding effort in the 53rd, had a header saved by Milinkovic-Savic in the 64th and headed Aubameyang’s cross wide in stoppage time.
Maybe the most impressive part in Martinelli’s performance was his work-rate. He had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, won 3 of 5 tackles and led all players with 5 key passes, including an assist for Ceballos in the 57th. His flair for goals is obvious but Martinelli is more a second striker than a pure centerforward because of his passing ability and his tendency to play between the lines. To a certain extent, Martinelli reminds me of Bebeto.
- The Ozil conundrum
You would think that the Europa League was the perfect opportunity to give Ozil some playing time. But Emery decided to leave him out of the squad. I’m not shocked by Emery’s choice. We know that the board already wanted to get rid of Ozil last season. Ozil will turn 31 this month. His stats started declining under Wenger. The German playmaker is not the future of this club and not even the present. He’s part of the dead wood that the Gunners must clear to rebuild a competitive team.
What are the pros and cons? The pros: 1. Youngsters like Willock, Saka, Nelson and Martinelli get more playing time at Ozil’s expense; 2. Emery can implement his brand of football. Ceballos made 5 tackles against Standard, according to whoscored.com. Arsenal simply can’t press high up the pitch with Ozil’s poor work-rate. Now, the cons: 1. That’s bad publicity for the club; 2. Emery loses a tactical option. The Gunners only have 2 playmakers: Ceballos and Ozil. If Ceballos gets injured, there’s no playmaker left. The creative spark would then have to come from Lacazette, Saka or Nelson.
- Tierney showed his quality
The Scottish fullback had 2 successful dribbles out of 2 and made 4 key passes, including the assist for the opening goal. Tierney showed a good balance between attack and defense. His defensive output matched his offensive contribution as he won 3 of 4 tackles, made 2 interceptions and had only 1 turnover.
The big difference between Tierney and Kolasinac is the quality of the crossing. Kolasinac feels more comfortable on the ground and therefore prefers to cut the ball back whereas Tierney has a better technique for high crosses. Tierney led all players with 4 accurate crosses out of 7, according to whoscored.com. His passing accuracy also reached 92.9% compared to 80.9% for Bellerin, who is still a few games away from his best level.
- Nelson is making progress
At this stage of his career, Nelson is still struggling to show end product in the Premier League but he can make a significant impact in the Europa League. The English teenager has no goal or assist in 4 Premier League games this season but he set up Martinelli for the second goal against Les Rouges.
Nelson produced a decent all-around performance, having 2 successful dribbles out of 6, making 3 key passes and 1 interception and winning 1 of 1 tackle in 78 minutes. Any positive experience in the Europa League can only boost his confidence and accelerate his development.
The manager must have noticed the good understanding between Nelson and Martinelli. Besides the second goal, Nelson also created chances for the Brazilian striker in the 25th, the 53rd and the 64th. Martinelli returned the favor in the 43rd by sending Nelson clean through on goal but Milinkovic-Savic denied Nelson.
Nelson has huge potential but he’s not the finished product yet. Defenders know that Nelson loves to check back on his right foot when he plays on the left wing. To avoid being too predictable, Nelson is learning to cross with his weaker left foot. One attempt sailed out of play in the 30th. But Nelson was not discouraged and he set up Ceballos with another left-footed cross in the 77th.
- Torreira did not convince in the No. 6 role
Emery left Xhaka on the bench and let Torreira play in front of the back four. Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag because he’s still not playing at the level he showed a year ago. Torreira had only 1 turnover and no Standard player managed to dribble past him. But he made 3 fouls that could have been avoided. Torreira also showed poor decision-making in the 39th when he dived in for a 50-50 ball. Laifis won the ball and Les Rouges created a chance because Torreira left a huge gap in midfield. The Uruguay midfielder could have been more tidy in possession too. Torreira lost possession with a poor first touch in the ninth minute and gave the ball away in the 28th. The Gunners definitely need to sign a defensive midfielder next summer.
- Willock is becoming an important player
Ramsey was the link player connecting defense and attack last season. Willock is now playing that role for the Gunners following Ramsey’s departure to Juventus. The academy graduate scored his 3rd goal in 9 games this season, pouncing on a rebound to beat Milinkovic-Savic with a low strike in the 22nd. Willock could have also scored in the 17th but he volleyed Tierney’s cross over the bar.
The crowd at the Emirates stadium got a glimpse of his generosity on the pitch when Willock led a counterattack by running 50 yards in the 41st. Holding onto the ball too long can sometimes be Willock’s péché mignon. He dallied on the ball in the 62nd and sent his final ball for Bellerin out of play. Willock still had a passing accuracy of 94.6% compared to 93.9% for Ceballos and 90.8% for Torreira, according to whoscored.com.
- Maitland-Niles’ limits were exposed
A midfielder by trade in the academy, Maitland-Niles became a wingback under Wenger before Emery used him as a fullback. Some fans wanted to see Maitland-Niles play in midfield, thinking that he would perform better. Unfortunately, his technical limits were exposed against an average Belgian side.
Maitland-Niles made 0 key pass, won 2 of 3 tackles and had 4 turnovers and 0 shot on target. His passing accuracy of 63.2% was the lowest percentage among outfield starters, according to whoscored.com. Maitland-Niles’ poor footwork led to a dangerous turnover in the 60th, forcing Martinez to parry Mpoku’s strike.
I believe Maitland-Niles is too limited technically to play as a midfielder for a Top 4 club. If he desperately wants to play in midfield, then a move to a weaker club would be the logical outcome. For instance, Lansbury plays at Aston Villa and Hayden joined Newcastle. But at this stage of his career, wingback is Maitland-Niles’ best position.