Arsenal came into the final group match in the Europa League with nothing to play for. For BATE Borisov, however, they still had a chance to claim the second spot and advance into the knockout rounds depending on the result between Red Star Belgrade and 1. FC Koln. Three first-half goals by the Gunners led to an easy 6-0 win over a beleaguered Borisov that couldn’t cope with Jack Wilshere’s all-around play.
Arsenal: Ospina; Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Debuchy; Coquelin, Elneny (Willock); Welbeck (Nketiah), Wilshere, Walcott (Nelson); Giroud
BATE Borisov: Scherbitski; Volodko, Milunovic, Polyakov, Rios; Dragun, Berezkin; Stasevich (Tuominen), Ivanic (Yablonski), Gordeychuk; Rodionov (Signevich)
In the post-match press conference, Wenger said, “I will adapt the team every time to the different team we face. I just select the team I think can win the next game.” His use of the 4-2-3-1, in this case, makes perfect sense. Against a BATE Borisov team that has not played since November 26th, adding an extra attacker likely would not have compromised their defensive structure.
Having the extra midfielder provided Arsenal with a stronger base for their initial progressions. Elneny and Coquelin, easily the more defensively-minded of Arsenal’s midfielders, would occupy the central corridors and shift horizontally when Arsenal rotated possession. If Arsenal attempted their buildup down the flanks, they would adapt their positioning to create local overloads to break Borisov’s middle block. As the ball progressed into the final third, one of them would push forward nearer the half-space. Sometimes Wilshere would switch positions with either of the midfielders to change the dynamic of Arsenal’s progression since he is a more accomplished passer than the two of them.
Arsenal also tried to leverage the aggressiveness of Borisov’s fullbacks by progressing with speed down the flank using either Walcott or Debuchy. Sometimes it worked with these types of clever movements forcing Borisov’s defensive shape to adjust to space. Debuchy, in particular, pushed the fullback deeper into the final third as they became weary of Arsenal’s speed and quick passing in wide areas.
Arsenal was able to play with greater space and freedom once they went up two goals. Borisov’s defensive structure, originally a 4-1-4-1, started to become more porous as they became more aggressive in their pressing. Arsenal was obviously prepared and constantly varied their attacking angles and off-ball movement. Wilshere’s goal came specifically off the ball-side defenders idly watching play instead of shadow covering Arsenal’s deliberate central concentration. Wilshere sees the midfielders pushing towards Walcott in the half-space and makes a clever, though preventable, run between the centerbacks. It was not a coincidence that all three of Arsenal’s first-half goals came from such incisive passing sequences.
The second half started with Borisov lining up in a 4-4-2 by pushing one of their midfielders further forward to aid in pressing Arsenal’s early buildup as well as provide another attacking option when they had the ball. Despite their adjustments, Arsenal continued dominating possession and utilized the central movement of Wilshere to attack vertically.
As the game wore on, Jack became a constant nuisance through his ability to exploit the space between Borisov’s lines. It was clear throughout his desire to create an impact as he constantly demanded the ball and dictated Arsenal’s tempo in possession. He routinely found gaps in Borisov’s stretched defensive shape to generate multiple attacking chances either through vertical passes through the half-spaces or driving into the box himself. His on-the-fly adjustments kept the opponent guessing and provided space for attackers to be aggressive in their movements. That Borisov was never able to deal with the effervescent spark that Wilshere provided in attack only signaled their overall defensive malaise over 90 minutes. In the end, six goals seemed a fitting end for an Arsenal B team that appears to be finally clicking.