For a while on Thursday night, it looked as though Arsenal would struggle to emerge from their Europa League match with Serbian club, Red Star Belgrade with a win. The hosts, the only Serbian (formerly Yugoslavian) team to win a European Cup, are the most successful club in the history of Serbia, with 27 league championships in their existence. The Serbian SuperLiga side gave the Gunners a physical battle to contend with right from the off, and a combination of threatening counter attacks and stout defence proved a difficult formula for the Gunners to unlock. After the match, manager Arsene Wenger was relieved to come away with three points and equally as happy to see his youngsters play so well in such a hostile environment.
Let’s take a look at some of Thursday night’s key takeaways:
4 years ago, Jack Wilshere scored what has since become known as the definitive “Wengerball” goal against Norwich City. Incorporating 1-2s, slick touches and individual creativity, it represents everything that is good about Arsenal football when it is clicking. On Thursday, Wilshere and Olivier Giroud combined again for another wonder goal, with the Frenchman finishing off the move with a brilliant overhead kick. The goal came shortly after Red Star had gone down to 10 men and rescued the Gunners from dropping their first points in the group stages of the Europa League. The goal was Giroud’s third of the season.
Jack Wilshere was undoubtedly the key to that play, having started the move by exploding between two defenders after collecting the ball and moving it on to Walcott just inside the box. Walcott then fed a return pass to Wilshere, whose clever chip then returned to Walcott. The rapid winger’s pass into Giroud was slightly behind the Frenchman, who wasted little time firing the overhead kick into the top corner for the Gunners. Having recently earned his 100th goal in an Arsenal shirt, Giroud is hoping his exquisite finish will lead to even more vital goals for the club, as has been his habit over the last two seasons.
There was a rare sighting on the pitch on Thursday when squad outsider Mathieu Debuchy made his first appearance of the season in Serbia. Having only lasted 16 minutes last season after reinjuring himself in his first match of the season, it was thought by many that Debuchy would not appear again in an Arsenal shirt. The French defender has seen his Arsenal career almost disappear after the unexpected emergence of Hector Bellerin just over two seasons ago, and his frustrations have boiled over in the media in each of the last two summers. On a Thursday, Debuchy stepped into the back 3, playing on the right of Mohammed Elneny and lasting the full 90 minutes. Looking bigger and more ponderous than he had in his brief cameo appearance last season, he nevertheless impressed in his season debut. Though his inclusion in the squad was due more to necessity than personal achievement, but Arsene Wenger will be relieved to know that he has another viable option to choose from the squad in emergencies.
As has been the case so far in the group stages of Europa League competition, Wenger once again mixed youth with experience for a Thursday night match. Much like their previous match in Belarus, against BATE Borisov, the young Gunners got a taste of the sort physical competition they just do not experience in their youth team matches. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson all impressed in their roles, standing up to everything their physical foes threw at them. Red Star seemed intent on challenging the youngsters early, and the trio all displayed the composure and quality on the ball that are such important values in the club’s academy system.
Joe Willock had perhaps the quietest night of the three, focusing on linking the buildup with the attack from his central midfield position. Mainland-Niles and Nelson started at wingback for the Gunners, seriously impressing with their defensive work rate and forward thinking. Nelson, in particular, made some dangerous runs with the ball at his feet, and displayed his deft escapability in several tight situations. Mainland-Niles, a true utility player due to his versatility and range of skills, has continued to impress with his maturity, unafraid to trust his tackling and instincts when forced to make a play. The future is bright for all three players, and this season’s Euro League participation will prove to be invaluable experience for the next generation of Gunners, a far cry from the perception of embarrassment that comes with a Euro League qualification as a big club.
Injury Decimated Defence Holds Strong
Over the last couple of weeks, an injury bug has snuck up on the Arsenal first team, totally decimating the defence in particular. With Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Calum a Chambers all out injured and Per Mertesacker too far into the twilight of his career to play so soon again, Wenger was left with just Rob Holding as his only out and out centre back available for selection. Holding was joined by midfielder Mohammed Elneny and forgotten fullback, Mathieu Debucy in the make shift back 3, flanked by Nelson and Maitland-Niles at wingback. Though it was hardly the lockdown performance that one might expect after taking a look at both sides on paper, the unfamiliar defence nevertheless held on to the clean sheet.
The decision to start Petr Cech over David Ospina was likely due to the inexperienced backline, as the Czech legend has always been known for his ability to organise a defence. His flawless positioning and superior length to the Columbian keeper might have served him well on a few of his saves, including one where he had to unceremoniously toss one of his young teammates aside to make the save. Ospina is also coming off an absolute shocker of a performance for Columbia last week in which he was responsible for conceding both Paraguayan goals that robbed 3 points from his country and left them in danger of missing the World Cup altogether before their final 1-1 draw with Peru. This likely played a part in Wenger’s decision, as Ospina is a player that needs confidence to perform at his highest level, lacking as he does the requisite height of a traditional goalkeeper. Whatever the reason, there will be little regret over the decision after Cech’s blanking of the hosts.
In the Driver’s Seat
With the Premier League title race as challenging as ever this season, it was important for Arsenal to start strong in the European campaign to allow the league starters as much rest as possible before the latter stages of the competition require their services. After a perfect 9 points in 3 matches, the Gunners are in the driver’s seat of Europa League Group H. Having already beaten each of their opponents that they will face in this round, Arsenal can now focus the bulk of their attention on league play while continuing to give the youngsters and squad players competitive time on the pitch. Though far from over, Arsenal’s grip on the top of the group appears safe for now. The Gunners now have two weeks to prepare for their next Europa League match, a home game against a Red Star Belgrade once again.