After drawing 0-0 at home to Red Star Belgrade on Thursday night, Arsenal have secured qualification to the knockout stages of the Europa League with two games to spare, and did so without risking any of their big names players in the process.
Job done, right?
I’m not so sure.
If you listed the objectives that Arsenal wanted to achieve by this stage of the competition, then it would look like this;
- No injuries
- Give a chance to those who need match experience or match fitness
- Seriously, no injuries
- Try to get players used to playing in our new formation for when they might be needed to fill in for a senior player
- For the love of God, no injuries!
Well, 1 (qualify), 2 (no injuries), 4 (seriously, no injuries) and 6 (god, I’m begging you, no injuries) were simple enough to tick off, but 3 and 5 are a bit more complicated.
In the bigger picture, Arsenal have sailed through without much difficulty, but under the surface, there is plenty of scope for concern.
These games should be an opportunity for those who think they should be starting in the bigger games (Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere to name but three) to show that they are more than just squad players and they are better than they are perceived to be.
But apart from Wilshere at BATE Borisov in September, have any of those three performed to a standard that would warrant selection in the first team three days later? No.
Even with Granit Xhaka in shocking form at the moment, did Francis Coquelin do anything to show that he would be a plausible replacement?
I’ll wait until you stop laughing before moving on.
But the performance of the ‘senior’ players is not only impacting their own chances of getting into the first team, it’s hurting the youngsters that are being plugged in to fill the gaps.
Reiss Nelson will never, ever be a wing-back.
He’s not playing there because we think he’s going to be a good wing-back, he’s playing there because Walcott needs the game time to maintain his own fitness and that means Nelson’s best position is occupied. He could play on the left, but Wilshere is there, and if Wilshere wasn’t there then Danny Welbeck or Alex Iwobi would be.
So in order to get him the match experience he needs, off to wing-back he goes.
It’d be fine if this was a centre-back playing at full-back, or a striker playing on the wing, but this is a forward-minded player being asked to play what is essentially a defensively-minded role.
Nelson will be spending valuable time learning how to cover opposition runners and through balls when instead he should be learning how to play them himself. He needs to spend as much time studying how to shadow mark a winger, as he does on studying how to tie a knot around an ostrich.
The same applies for Eddie Nketiah, who was sent on with 20 minutes to go to try and generate a spark of the bench, but was immediately shunted out to the left wing, where it became painfully obvious that he will always opt to use his right foot whenever possible.
Instead of playing with two up front, and have Nketiah run around Giroud with Wilshere playing behind both of them, Wilshere was moved back twenty yards and was forced to continually bring the ball forward without anyone running ahead of him, what with Giroud and Walcott not making any movement in front of him and Nketiah standing on the left wing not knowing where to stand or run.
3-4-2-1 may suit Arsenal when the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette are buzzing around the place at 100 miles an hour, but it doesn’t suit Giroud, it sure as hell doesn’t suit Walcott, and Wilshere is left in no-man’s land trying to be the link-up man between a striker who can’t run and a defensive midfielder who can’t pass.
When he was moved back to centre midfield, all it did was reinforce the fact that even though his signature burst of acceleration is still there, his pace over 20 yards isn’t, and he was constantly chased down from behind and tackled.
Without anyone running ahead of him, he lost possession as he waited for someone to run.
Joe Willock was equally culpable, but I’d like to think that with time, he will learn to move the ball quicker. Jack hasn’t got time any more.
It was telling that when Wenger made a case for Wilshere to be picked for the England squad earlier this week, the almost universal reaction by those not with an Arsenal bias was ‘Nahhhhhhh.’
England’s midfield isn’t exactly teeming with talent at the moment, but Wilshere needs to show that he’s both healthy and able to play centre midfield at a high intensity for 90 minutes.
The fact that Wenger thinks it’d be a good idea if he was able to prove both of those things whilst playing for England, so that he can keep picking him on Thursdays instead of Sundays sums the whole thing up.
The whole purpose of having a ‘B team’ is that it gives those in the ‘A team’ something to worry about if they perform poorly, whilst keeping those who do play in the second team fit.
So far, all the ‘B team’ has done is get some cardio exercise in whilst travelling to central and eastern Europe.
It might suit us in the short term for this team to be coasting through the group stages, but Arsenal needs everyone to be at their sharpest for the next few weeks.
So far, despite their best intentions, it hasn’t worked.