Team Rotation Reveals Priorities
Getting Arsene Wenger to admit he is sacrificing some chance at a Premier League victory to ensure his team is ready for the Europa League would be as difficult a task as exists, but one has only to look at his decision to rotate some of his key players to the bench for Sunday’s match to see a correlation. Laurent Koscielny, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were not in the starting XI and Wilshere was the one of them dressed for the game and sat on the bench. All 3 were vital to the win on Thursday in Italy, but they also represent 3 of the most injury-prone players in the team. Wenger was not willing to risk them against a physical Watford team, even though Milan will come to town on Thursday needing to score 2 unanswered away goals to get back into the match.
It may not be what every supporter wants to hear, but the Europa League now represents The Gunners’ best chance of getting back into the Champions League for next season. Jose Mourinho was widely mocked last season when he heavily rotated his squad, even against rivals, for league matches surrounding his all-important Europa League matches. The gamble paid off for the Portuguese manager and his Manchester United team, who managed to win the competition and secure a berth in Europe’s biggest club competition for this season. The Gunners will be desperate to avoid being seen as a habitual Europa League team, and a win this season guarantees last season gets looked on as merely a fluke and not the new normal for Arsenal.
It may have taken 11 failed get there, but Petr Cech finally reached 200 Premier League clean sheets on Sunday. To make the moment even more special for the 35 year old keeper, it required his first ever penalty save in an Arsenal shirt to preserve the achievement, and it came off of a Troy Deeney (he of ‘Arsenal Lack cojones’ fame) attempt. The Czech goalkeeper was alert throughout the match, always there when required, including on a brilliant Richarlison attempt that could have easily found the bottom corner. After the match, Cech spoke about the unique personal achievement, but even in his proud moment, he was quick to mention the positive result was most important for the team as a whole.
One of the advantages that Arsene Wenger and Sven Mislintat were banking on by singing both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mhkitaryan in the same transfer window was their existing on-pitch relationship from their time in Dortmund together. Their first match as Arsenal teammates, a runaway 5-1 victory against Everton at the beginning of February, showed supporters just how good they can be together. However, the Gunners’ 4 game losing streak that followed quickly curtailed the optimism surrounding their arrivals, and some began t question whether they would really be such great additions after all.
Against Watford, the duo was back to their best, constantly getting deep into the Hornets’ defensive third and causing problems for their backline. Mhkitaryan set up Aubameyang for the second Arsenal goal with a beautiful through ball that the Gabonese striker was able to accelerate on to before Watford goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis could arrive, taking a touch beyond him before rolling the ball casually into the back of the net. Aubameyang then returned the favour with just under a quarter of an hour remaining when he latched on to a rebound and squared the ball for Mhkitaryan, who stroked it home past Karnezis with the left foot. The Armenian’s energy and willingness to try and create chances, as well as the pure pace and ruthless goal poaching of Aubameyang adds a whole new, explosive dimension to the Arsenal attack when they play as well as they did on Sunday.
Young Guns Struggle For Consistency
The stellar team performance against Watford left few players to be singled out for criticism, but Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles both had moments they would love to forget. For Iwobi, his struggles in front of goal we’re almost becoming humorous, but it isn’t funny any more. The Nigerian playmaker has lost all confidence in his ability to put a hard, accurate shot on goal, and it is reaching the point where fans dread the sight of him pulling the trigger. As with Hector Bellerin, Iwobi polarises fans with his style of play, some finding his passing and movement a real asset, while others find his ineptitude in front of goal and his penchant for a bad mistake to be liabilities to the team whenever he is on the pitch. At 21, Iwobi is still incredibly young, but for fans anxious to see progression from the club’s young stars, he has not improved fast enough.
Given Hector Bellerin’s testy relationship with a certain faction of supporters, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was always going to be graded in a gentle curve by some. However even allowing for his age, the young Englishman put on a patchy performance against Watford. His significant pace and physical tools make it easy for him to cover for poor defensive instincts, but he committed to ultimate sin on Sunday when he needlessly conceded a penalty to give Watford the opportunity to get back into the match that could have ruined Petr Cech’s chance at his 200th clean sheet. At just 20 years old, Maitland-Niles has an exceedingly bright future, and one that could play out in any number of positions on the pitch. He has done an admirable job filling in at both full back positions this season, but perhaps this summer could be the perfect opportunity to move him back into a preferred role in the midfield, where he can once again focus on the traits that make him such a highly valued young talent.
Answering Their Critics
With a top 4 place all but out of reach, the Gunners’ Premier League campaign is no longer their most important competition on the schedule. However, it is there where this team must work to alter the perception around this current group of players that suggests they do not have the fortitude as a whole to be a true contender. The team never seemed to find a rhythm this season, and the situation quickly spiraled out of control as their rivals continued to collect points at a breathtaking rate, but this squad is far from lacking in talent. It is therefore up to the players to show the world that they are not a joke of a club in terminal decline, but a united team that is serious about returning next season on a mission to compete for the Premier League title.
Nearly every player had come under criticism from fans during the recent 4 game slide, but 2 players in particular look hellbent on earning back the affections of the Emirates faithful: Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi. Both players have always been physical and vocal on the pitch, but they have each seemed to find another level in the last two matches, and some fans are already taking notice. Granit Xhaka in particular has been light years better than he looked earlier in the season, and he has worked hard to improve his tackling technique and the speed with which he processes the game when on the ball. No player can ever be 100% mistake free, but Xhaka has seriously cut back on his ill-advised back passes when under pressure, as well as the occasional hot-headed tackle that could having him seeing red. Instead, the Swiss international is starting to look like the intelligent, pass-spraying holding midfielder fans thought he would be when he signed. It is refreshing to see a team that many criticise for being a “rudderless ship” respond with increased focus and determination, but they must now build on their recent improvements to show supporters what they are capable of becoming.