Arsenal secured a first-place finish in Group H of the Europa League despite a 1-0 defeat at Cologne on Thursday. Their four-point lead in the standings means that neither Cologne nor Red Star Belgrade can win the group even if the Gunners lose to BATE Borisov in two weeks.
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Wenger made 11 changes to the side that won the North London Derby last weekend. The manager injected a bit more experience than usual as Willock and Nelson were on the bench even though they started both Belgrade games. The Gunners played at a slow tempo but still dominated Thursday’s match with 16 shots compared to just 4 for the hosts, who haven’t won any game in the Bundesliga this season. Somehow, Cologne managed to score against the run of play in the second half. In hindsight, maybe Wenger should have started more youngsters instead of keeping some senior players happy.
- Ospina, Welbeck and Chambers returned from injury
If we except Cazorla, the Gunners have no player on the disabled list now. That’s good news when you look at the busy schedule for the next two months. Ospina was not much tested in Germany. He palmed away an angled strike from Cordoba in the sixth minute and could do nothing about Guirassy’s penalty in the 62nd. The manager was cautious with Welbeck, who only played the first half and was replaced by Iwobi at halftime. Welbeck seemed fit, having 5 successful dribbles out of 6 and curling a shot wide of the far post in the 33rd.
On the other hand, the sluggish Chambers didn’t prove a convincing choice at wingback. Debuchy played most of his career as a fullback and would have been a better option on the right flank. Chambers made no cross in the first half. The only chance he created came in the 67th with a cross that Wilshere headed over the bar. Chambers was guilty on the play that led to the penalty by failing to stay with Guirassy, who played a one-two with Jojic.
- There are too many average players in the squad
Thursday’s game showed the gap between the regular starters and the second-choice players. It’s hard to see what players like Chambers, Debuchy, Elneny, Coquelin, Giroud and even Wilshere could bring to the side that defeated Spurs. Elneny sent long balls out of play in the 15th and 39th and couldn’t beat the first defender with a couple of corner kicks. Only 2 of his 11 crosses were accurate, according to whoscored.com.
Hopefully, hiring Mislintat as the head of recruitment at Arsenal will help improve the squad. The scouting department has performed poorly in the past few years under Rowley. A change was long overdue. France used to be a gold mine for Arsenal but the club has missed out on the best players from the French league lately (Kante, Pogba, Martial, Mbappe, Varane, Kondogbia).
While Arsenal made mistakes in signing Park, Chamakh and Gervinho from French clubs, Mislintat helped Borussia Dortmund sign Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro. Here’s the difference between those two groups of players: Park, Chamakh and Gervinho shone in the French league but failed to adapt to the Premier League whereas Aubameyang, Dembele and Guerreiro carried their success from France to the Bundesliga. A smart scout will spot the skills that can be imported to any league while an average scout will focus on the less important skills.
It’s OK to gamble once in a while on young players like Sanogo, Reine-Adelaide, Bielik and Holding. But when you spend £16 million on Chambers, £13 million on Paulista and £7 million on Elneny, you expect to get regular starters and not benchwarmers.
- Debuchy was the weak link in the back three
The French defender led all players with 5 fouls. He clearly struggled with Guirassy’s pace and was booked for a cynical foul on the Cologne forward in the 49th. A poor clearance from Debuchy led to a scoring chance for the German side in the 60th: Guirassy took a pass from Jojic but could only hit a tame effort straight at Ospina. A minute later, the referee awarded the hosts a penalty for some minimal contact between Debuchy and Guirassy. It was a play similar to Bellerin’s challenge on Richarlison in the Watford game.
- Mertesacker had a decent game
The German defender led Arsenal players with 5 interceptions and was dominant in the air with 9 headers won. He made up for his lack of pace with his smart positional play. In fact, Mertesacker was the only Arsenal centerback who won a tackle. He won 1 of 2 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for Holding and 0 of 6 for Debuchy, according to Squawka. Mertesacker nearly leveled from a corner in the 64th, but his header was cleared off the line by Horn.
On the left side of the back three, Holding lacked focus a couple of times. Cologne capitalized on a Holding turnover in the 12th to launch a counterattack but Mertesacker intercepted Cordoba’s final ball. Mertesacker had Holding’s back again in the 28th. Cordoba rolled away from Holding only to have his pass for Osako intercepted by Mertesacker. In the closing minutes, Holding was pulled out of position and Mertesacker had to kill a counterattack by blocking a cross.
- Maitland-Niles rose to the occasion
The contrast with Chambers’ performance on the opposite flank was glaring. Although Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he still managed to make 3 key passes from the left wing. He also had a passing accuracy of 95%, won 2 of 4 tackles and had 5 successful dribbles out of 7, while Chambers had a passing accuracy of 77%, won 0 of 1 tackle and had 2 successful dribbles out of 2, according to Squawka. Maitland-Niles is not playing in his favorite position (central midfield) but at least he’s honing his skills by getting some experience in competitive European games.
- Wilshere’s performance raised more question marks
Wenger said before the international break that Wilshere was ready for the England team. However, Wilshere’s performance against a weak German side was a mixed bag. Wilshere tested Horn with a downward header in the 21st and long-range strikes in the 66th and stoppage time. He also had 8 successful dribbles out of 11. But his defensive contribution was limited and he only made 2 key passes despite 69% of ball possession for the Gunners. The most frustrating part was his poor ball-retention skills that led to 5 turnovers, the most for an Arsenal player. It’s hard to see where Wilshere would fit in Southgate’s plans. The England manager seems to build his squad around the pressing game implemented at Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.
- Arsenal didn’t play to Giroud’s strengths
Giroud is an old-fashioned centerforward. He won’t create a chance out of nothing like Van Persie. That means Giroud needs decent service in the box. Unfortunately, the Gunners didn’t feed him with crosses. Giroud was involved in only 1 aerial duel and that was in midfield. That’s criminal when you know the France striker’s dominance in the air. His only scoring chance came in the 76th. Giroud chased a ball over the top from Wilshere but had a heavy second touch which allowed Horn to tackle the ball out of play. Deprived of service, Giroud tried to work for his teammates. He drifted to the left wing in the 30th to make a cross for Coquelin, who hit the near post.
- When a senior player is blocking a youngster’s path
Nelson is the most promising prospect in the academy. Walcott’s presence in the squad has forced Wenger to play Nelson in the wingback position. Nelson initially struggled in that role before improving his understanding of the position and his defensive skills. The manager could have started Nelson against Cologne but he preferred to give some playing time to Chambers and Debuchy, who both had a poor game.
When Nelson came off the bench to replace Chambers in the 67th, the Gunners suddenly looked more threatening down the right wing. Nelson could have won a penalty for an obstruction from Sorensen in the 83rd. He also showed off his dribbling skills in the 89th by slaloming through the Cologne defense to sting Horn’s gloves with a toe poke. The teenager got bonus points in the 71st for his defensive awareness. Guirassy outpaced Debuchy but Nelson rushed back to recover the ball.