Say what you like about an Arsenal in turmoil, but Arsene Wenger’s men know how to survive a European group stage. Despite a largely forgettable affair, full of missed chances and a lack of clinical finishing, the Gunners succeeded in booking their place in the next round after their goalless draw to Red Star Belgrade. It was the second head to head matchup for the two clubs in a row, and Arsenal now have just Koln and BATE Borisov left to face in the group stage, with just one of them, a trip to Cologne, coming on the road.
A New Number 2?
When watching Matt Macey patrol his penalty area, most Arsenal fans by now probably feel more confident than when David Ospina gets the start between the sticks. Despite having played in just two matches for the first team, he allowed just one goal in his debut against Norwich City, and picked up the first clean sheet of his Gunner career on Thursday night. With his long frame and assertive presence in the box, Macey calls to mind other mountainous British goalkeepers like Fraser Forster and Joe Hart. If anything, Macey is even more athletic than the plodding Hart, but he has not yet been given a chance to show what he can do in a Premier League match. At just 23, Macey is years away from prime age for a top-level goalkeeper, but manager Arsene Wenger seems to be high on him and could now be comfortable enough with his behind Petr Cech to finally move on from Ospina.
On Thursday, Macey actually helped save a point for the Gunners, as he managed to tip the most threatening shot he faced all night off the crossbar. After getting caught off his line slightly, Macey showed of his reach and his reflexes to make the save, and it was a shot that Ospina almost certainly would not have gotten to. Some might argue that Macey’s night was made easier by a lack of clinical finishing from the Red Star forwards, but even when the shots were off target, Macey was in a position to make the save. David Ospina has had his moments of brilliance for both club and country, but given his lack of consistency and his physical limitations due to his height (especially in the Premier League), perhaps Matt Macey is the better choice going forward to be Petr Cech’s deputy.
An Irritating Opponent
Sometimes a smaller club will leave you with a huge amount of respect for the way they play, their effort levels and their team unity, even if they might lack the talent and resources to compete with the truly big clubs in Europe. Red Star Belgrade are not one of those clubs. On Thursday, it was apparent that the visiting Serbian club would use every trick, delay and rough tackle under the sun to get under the Arsenal players’ skin. The visitors knew all too well that they would be unable to hang with the hosts if they were allowed to get into a groove while in possession, so every errant tackle, misplaced pass and ball put into touch was followed by an unhurried a Red Star response.
While it is certainly not the obligation of a smaller club to entertain when travelling to play a strong opponent like Arsenal, the actions of some of the Red Star players bordered on unsportsmanlike. Every little kick from an Arsenal player required immediate medical attention, while reckless challenges going the other way we’re committed with regularity. There is no doubt that these tactics worked, as the frustrated Gunners never found their quality in front of goal, but the match was far from the most enjoyable you’ll ever see in a European night.
Catching The Boss’s Eye?
Ever since coming back into the squad this season and performing well, Jack Wilshere has had fans calling for him to get a game in the Premier League starting XI. However, this season Arsene Wenger has stuck with consistent teams for League and European competitions, and with the possible exception of Wilshere, has made the right call in doing so. Former starters and club veterans Walcott and Giroud have not exactly seized on their opportunities either, with Walcott, in particular, seeming to feel the pressure to produce noticeable brilliance every time he steps on the pitch in a bid to earn his starting spot back.
With crowd favourite Wilshere, there is a growing cross-section of supporters that would like to see him supplant Ramsey in central midfield in the starting XI. Though the Welshman has made a career of maddening inconsistency and nagging injuries just as his form is returning, 2017/18 has been his most consistent since his brilliant 2013/14 season. His tireless work rate is the perfect foil for the less mobile Granit Xhaka in the centre of the park, and Wenger has preferred the pair since the end of last season. Wilshere has undoubtedly looked strong since his return, and Premier League starts are certainly not out of the question anymore for him, but Arsene Wenger appears to be in no hurry to force him into the side.
A Trend Becoming A Habit?
Another match, another display of poor final product for the Gunners. It seems like every week now that Arsenal are dominating the ball but not finding the back of the net. At first, it looked as though the players were just working their way back into form after the summer layoff, but while there have been several eye-catching combinations played on the edge of the box this season by the probing Arsenal attack, the final pass just never seems to arrive on time and on target. It is an affliction that has struck both the first XI and the mix of squad players and youth that comprise their League Cup and Europa League squad.
On Thursday, it was the wonder kids that lacked precision most of all in the attacking third. Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles all had up and down evenings, as some of the physical challenges they absorbed from the Red Star players had them looking to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, wiping out several promising Arsenal attacks. Though growing pains should be expected with such a young group, Nelson, in particular, struggled to pick his head up at times, driving straight into the defence and losing the ball on multiple occasions.
There is still much to learn for Wenger’s trio of promising youngsters, but they were far from the only players to struggle with their final product, as Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott each had moments in which their quality deserted them. Walcott and Giroud both missed the target on multiple occasions, and Wilshere had a chipped effort cleared off the line. The Gunners need to solve their issues in front of goal fast, as November sees them play several key matches that could determine where they finish at the end of the season.
Theirs To Lose
With Thursday night’s draw, the Gunners maintained their stranglehold on their Europa League Group, having taken 10 points from 4 matches. With just 2 matches remaining in the group stage, Arsenal now lead second-place Red Star Belgrade by 5 points, having beaten the Serbian club twice already. The Gunners are now guaranteed to not require needing first team stars to get through to the next round, meaning more games for fringe players and youngsters. The club will also have its fingers crossed that no other English club gets knocked out of the Champions League and into the Europa League, as being the only club in England remaining in the tournament means a much larger cut of the tournament’s television revenue, something that ended up being quite lucrative for Manchester United last season. The Gunners will return to Europa League action November 23 against Koln.