Is there any club in the world quite like Arsenal? Who else could be capable of such utterly uninspired play in one half followed immediately by perhaps the best 45 minutes the team has played all season? This being a post-Highbury world of empty seats and less than total belief from the fans, the home crowd was nearly drowned out by the rambunctious traveling German support, but those that stayed late into the London night to see out the match left feeling satisfied.
A Tale of Two Halves
From the start of the first half, it looked like it would be yet another of those frustrating nights for the Gunners, in which they control the balance of play but lack all imagination and confidence in the attacking third. This was certainly not helped by a 9th minute Cologne goal from Jhon Cordoba off of a poor clearance by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. It was a wonderful long range effort by the Colombian attacker, but it was also the exact sort of goal that many Gooners fear whenever the shorter Ospina gets a Cup competition start in Petr Cech’s stead. The visitors, spurred on by their delirious fans, made it all the way to the halftime whistle looking as if they would be able to see out the match sitting deep and attacking on the counter.
Arsenal controlled the ball well enough, but too often were forced into passing around the defence in a passive “u” shape in that first half. Alex Iwobi and Mohammed Elneny were an insufficient presence in the centre of the pitch when Arsenal opened the match in their 3-4-2-1, forcing a rather bored Alexis Sanchez to drift into the Gunner’s own end in an attempt to see more of the ball. Arsenal got close on a few occasions in the first half, but goalkeeper Timo Horn was unthreatened. The most promising chances seemed to always result in Theo Walcott being flagged for offside, a combination of a couple bad calls and his continued perplexing lack of awareness for where the last defender is. It was clear to everybody watching that Arsenal needed a change as the first half came to a close.
Arsene Wenger obliged when the team returned to the pitch for the start of the second half, with Sead Kolasinac coming in for Rob Holding and the team returning to their trusty 4-2-3-1 from years past. The effect was immediate: Arsenal now controlled the midfield with Ainsley Maitland-Niles having joined Iwobi and Elneny in the middle, Alexis Sanchez remembered that he was decent at football, and Hector Bellerin came alive, looking as good as he had since the beginning of last season in his old right back role in a back 4.
It was substitute Kolasinac that pulled the Gunners level in the 49th minute with an absolute howitzer of a left-footed volley and the floodgates immediately opened, taking Arsenal into full control of the match. Alexis Sanchez, appearing like a new player the second half in his old left wing role, followed up 20 minutes later with an incredible solo effort struck as he was drifting across and away from the Cologne goal, just outside the box. Arsenal continued to dominate for the remainder of the match, with Hector Bellerin banging home the host’s third goal of the night on a loose ball in the box. The final quarter of an hour bled away with little more drama, leaving Arsenal with the well deserved 3-1 win.
Enemy at the Gates
As news started trickling in the day before the match that about 20,000 Cologne supporters were arriving in London for the match with a little over 10% of those fans even having a ticket. In a typical display of German fan passion, the traveling supporters nearly shut down central London in their attempt to gate crash the Emirates. The match ended up delayed by an hour as police and stadium staff looked to quell the mob that was rapidly forming. Flares, public disorder, and violence all threatened to destabilize the match, with many Arsenal fans simply looking on in wonder at the scene.
Back in European competition after a 20-year absence, Cologne and its fans were naturally excited for the opportunity to come to England and support their club. German fans in general have garnered a reputation for their passion and devotion to their clubs, but in recent years, the high prices those fans are forced to pay when traveling have caused mass disruptions by angry fans. While true that England is a much more expensive place to watch a football match than Germany, as visitors to another country and the home of another club, causing disorder and violence is not the answer. Arsenal got their first taste of hostile, united away support and will soon face another test of their character when Red Star Belgrade come to town.
Exploring the Depths
One of the most important things for Arsene Wenger to do this season as Arsenal balance out playing their Premier League and Europa League matches is to rotate his squad. With European matches coming for the Gunners this year on Thursday, it would be a tough ask of most players in the starting XI to maintain their energy levels in another full match just 2-3 days later. Arsene Wenger has built one of the deepest and most talented squads in Europe, but like the starting XI, they at times lack focus and plan of attack.
Despite being given the chance to prove their worth, not every player given the opportunity to start appeared to have a sense of urgency to open the match. Cologne had the legs in the first quarter of an hour and caused problems for the Gunners, particularly in central midfield and balls in behind the statue-like figure of Per Mertesacker. Alex Iwobi, last season’s young breakthrough into the first team, got the start in midfield with Mohammed Elneny and did not look suited to the role. He and Theo Walcott are perhaps the players most affected by Arsenal’s formation switch at the end of last year, with Iwobi functioning best in a ‘number 10’ role and Walcott as a true winger, neither of which are accommodated by the 3-4-2-1. It is, therefore, no coincidence that a halftime switch back to their old formation saw both players improve in the second half. Ainsley-Maitland Niles also impressed, particularly after moving into the midfield from his first half wing back role. Youngster Reiss Nelson got a look as well at the end of the match along with Jack Wilshere, who returned to the Arsenal team for the first time in more than a year.
The Jack Is Back
Despite many fans assuming he would start the match, Jack Wilshere had to wait until the second half to finally make his season debut for the Gunners, coming on for Alex Iwobi with a little over 20 minutes left. Wilshere’s impact was limited, but he made good decisions with the ball and his intelligent movement immediately stood out. No longer considered vital to the Arsenal future, Wilshere could still force his way back into Arsene Wenger’s plans for the league season with his performances.
If constant injuries have robbed Wilshere of some of his explosiveness, they will never take away his football brain. If he can stabilize his injury woes and find consistency, Jack Wilshere on an average day is still a darn good midfielder. The fans made sure to welcome one of their favored sons back warmly, as it warms the heart of many who have followed his progress from when he was a boy. At 25, he still has plenty of career left, should he overcome his injury woes, to forge a solid career at the club. With his contract expiring after the season, Jack will be desperate to prove to Arsenal or any other interested parties that he can still play. Perhaps his Arsenal story is still destined to have a happy ending.
Still Much to Do
Thursday night was an important test for the Gunners. Facing a hardworking opponent who had scratched and clawed their way back up the Bundesliga into a European place, it was important for the Gunners to match the intensity. For the first half, it was a complete failure, with Arsenal looking every bit as disengaged by the prospect of playing in a less prestigious tournament than had become the norm in North London. Whatever Arsene Wenger said at halftime clearly worked as his team looked totally different in the second half. Despite the second half being Arsenal’s best all season, Wenger will be looking for more consistent performances from his players, as, especially in the later stages of the competition, one good half could not be enough to escape with a victory. All in all, a satisfying win for the Gunners, but one from which they should be able to improve.