There are certainly a lot more comfortable ways to win 2 games in 4 days. After their hard-fought Premier League match on Monday night against West Brom, Arsenal might have hoped for a less taxing affair on their quick jaunt to Belarus to face domestic Premier League powerhouse, BATE Borisov. Unfortunately for the Gunners, their hosts were more than ready to give them a physical test right from the first whistle. A contingent of about 800 loyal Arsenal supporters made the journey to watch their club experience their first Europa League match on the road in over two decades.
BATE started off the match pressing their forwards surprisingly far up the pitch, closing down space as a unit, cutting off most of the Gunner backline from their short support in the midfield. Still, it wasn’t long before Arsenal were able to break the deadlock, as shortly after a beautiful but ultimately unsuccessful combination on the edge of the box, Theo Walcott was able to get into the box and bang home a deflected cross from Jack Wilshere. He had his brace wrapped 22 minutes into the match after a horrific clearance from BATE goalkeeper Denis Scherbitski hit him right at the edge of the box, leaving him free to waltz in and slot it past the 21 year old Bulgarian. A Rob Holding scuffed effort from a Walcott corner kick just 3 minutes later made it 3-0 to the Gunners, and the stadium grew hushed as it looked like Arsene Wenger’s team of experienced squad players and talented youth was going to keep rolling along to an easy victory. However, an assertive strike from Mirko Ivanic brought the home side back within 2 and gave them an injection of confidence and energy going into halftime.
The second half saw two far more evenly matched teams, as BATE continued to make the Gunners uncomfortable on the ball, and a relatively lax referee let a very physical match play out, only going to the pocket for egregious repeat offenses. When he did finally point to the penalty spot, however, it was for a questionable grab on Shkodran Mustafi in the box bet could have easily not been called. Olivier Giroud stepped up to bury the resultant penalty to make it 4-1. With the match slipping away from the home team, their intensity was raised to another level, consistently threatening David Ospina with their crosses and shots. By the time they had scored their second, it looked as though the Arsenal lead could be in jeopardy, but BATE would eventually run out of time, falling to their English guests 4-2.
It was known well in advance of Thursday night’s match in Belarus that the Gunners would not be bringing a full contingent of players with them. The short turnaround from Monday’s League match combined with Wenger’s desire to rotate the squad in at least the preliminary stages of their non-league competitions meant that youngsters got their chance to shine. 17-year-old Reiss Nelson made his first start in a real competition for the first team and played well at right wing back. Fellow youngsters Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock also put in respectable performances in what was an intense atmosphere.
Arsene Wenger recently tested that this current crop of Arsenal youngsters may be as good as he has had, and it is not difficult to see what he is on about. Whether it is the dynamism of Reiss Nelson or the team-oriented hard work of Ainsley-Maitland Niles, they are all steeped in the Arsenal way and already possess the technical ability to become quality professionals. Alex Iwobi has been the elder statesman of Arsenal’s most talented youths over the last two seasons, but if recent non-league matches are any indication, he may soon be joined by others from Hale End as regulars in the senior squad.
Last week, Jack Wilshere was given his first start of the season and played 90 minutes against Doncaster in the League Cup. Though he looked solid and held intelligent positioning throughout the match, he looked a long way off from the boy with all the talent in the world and the weight of the Three Lions’ future on his shoulders. Against BATE, Wenger handed his number 10 a more advanced role, playing off of forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott. The Englishman rewarded his manager with a vintage performance, dominating the ball in the final third and flying all over the pitch. He combined extremely well with fellow veteran Gunners Giroud and Walcott, setting up 1-2s on the edge of the box that absolutely sliced through the hosts’ defences.
After yet another serious leg injury that ended his season on the South Coast with Bournemouth, faith that Wilshere would make it anywhere near fulfilling his potential was at an all-time low to close out last season. Even before his injury, he had lost his grip on a place in Eddie Howe’s starting XI. Without his fellow pass and move practitioners from North London, a Wilshere looked merely average and rather uninspiring. With his Arsenal future up in the air after this season, he will be looking to finally put his injury woes behind him and become the player he was always supposed to be. It was only one game, but right now, the needle appears to be pointing up once again for the former Hale End pupil.
Expected Physicality, Surprising Skill
Having drawn their fair share of Eastern European teams over the last two decades of Champions League football, Arsenal knew what to expect when they arrived in Belarus. The best teams in that part of the world are always hard working, organised and play in front of the sort of atmosphere that would seem very foreign to a player that has spent little time outside of the UK in his career. On Thursday, BATE did not disappoint, giving the Arsenal blend of youth and experience little time on the ball after crossing the centre stripe and finishing every tackle with authority. Despite the increasingly physical nature of the match, particularly in the second half, Arsenal were able to hold on and not lose too much of their composure, even as the challenges became more reckless as the minutes ticked away.
The most surprising thing about the match, particularly for fans that have never heard of the Belarusian side, was their attacking nous. Despite seeing little of the ball once Arsenal grew into the match, the hosts were extremely threatening once getting into the Arsenal end, with quality service from the flanks a clear feature to their attack. Tactically, BATE’s plan was not one of fear, with them choosing to limit Arsenal’s time on the ball in the midfield and get between the defenders and their passing options in build up. The score may show a sizable advantage for the visiting Gunners, but the Premier League club is likely to leave Belarus with respect for their opponent.
100 Gun Salute
There was big news for Arsenal’s big man in the middle on Thursday night as Olivier Giroud finally struck goal number 100 in an Arsenal shirt. Having been stuck on 99 since burying an important goal against Leicester to open the league season, Giroud will be happy now to get to work on his second century of strikes in an Arsenal shirt. The goal, a cooly taken penalty into the bottom left corner, looked to be part of a wave of Arsenal goals en route to a blowout, but later turned out to be the decisive goal in the 4-2 win.
It would have been hard to imagine the lumbering Frenchman would make it to 100 goals for the club when he arrived from Montpellier in 2012. In fact, until last season, Giroud was one of the most consistently criticized members of the club. It wasn’t until Arsene Wenger decided to start Alexis Sanchez up front, replacing him that he began to be a more cherished figure at the Emirates. Having long had his own fan song, to the tune of a famous Beatles hit, it began to be sung with more gusto than ever before as the Frenchman scored important goal after important goal in the dying minutes of matches. Now he is among the most liked players in the squad, buoyed by his reaffirmed commitment to the club in the summer.
Another Hint of Wengerball
At this point, it would be hard to label it a coincidence that the Gunners penchant for highlight reel passing combinations has returned just as Jack Wilshere is making his return to a regular place in the squad. Clearly, injuries have not let Wilshere forget the sort of goals and passing moves that he used to be involved in on a weekly basis. It was obvious that he enjoyed playing with his longtime teammate, Theo Walcott, with the two combining threateningly throughout the match.
Arsenal have moved on from the time when Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla were at the heart of everything the team did towards a bigger, more balanced team throughout, but all 3 are still at the club. Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of aesthetically pleasing football has been supplemented by a harder edge in search of Premier League success, and should he be able to find a balance between the two, Arsenal will be a very tricky customer indeed moving forward.