When I looked at the team sheet before the game I knew all I needed to: Wenger ditched the Premier League entirely to save players for the Europa League.
That is a reasonable approach, one I have been advocating for even before the Milan games. I thought we would see a somewhat stronger side still however. Last week both all of Ramsey, Monreal and Ozil were handed starting spots, while Mkhitaryan came on from the bench.
Yesterday Wenger rotated even further though. Despite carrying a 3-goal advantage to Moscow, the gaffer fielded a side quite close to the one which played in earlier stages of the EL, Aubameyang and Bellerin perhaps notwithstanding. However this can easily be explained by Auba being cup-tied, while Hector no longer has decent back up after Debuchy left for pastures new.
Reiss Nelson was handed a full debut, Welbeck and Iwobi came in to support Aubameyang, while Kolasinac and Chambers slotted into our defence. Let’s look at all the changes in the context of what happened, mostly in chronological order for everyone’s sake.
Gunners going one down
After yet another limp start, which saw us pass from left to right and back again for 20 minutes or so, we were shaken out of our coma by Shane Long. The obnoxious midfielder, who started in a lone striker role, nipped in ahead of Mustafi after the danger was seemingly gone, and poked the ball past Cech.
Even if some blame can be attached to Kolasinac, who failed to prevent Cedric’s low cross into the area, it was Mustafi with another blunder to truly make the situation dangerous for us. Despite tracking Long in the earlier stages the German abandoned the striker near the 6-year box and just fell asleep, allowing Long to get the wrong side of him.
It was a totally preventable goal, almost solely down to lack of judgement from Mustafi. I think the German made one mistake too many to allow him to continue as our first-choice CB I think. We can keep him for the league games, which are already meaningless, but I’d like to see one of Chambers or Holding play alongside Koscielny in Europe. Both Englishmen did fine in recent weeks when called upon. It appears Wenger trusts Calum more, so I’d get him up for the return leg against CSKA.
I would also seriously consider the long-term future of Mustafi in the summer. I know we already have one too many problematic areas to sort out without the added burden of searching for an experienced centre-back, but Mustafi’s ability to veer from brilliance to stupidity is maddening. His consistency doesn’t seem to improve either and his blunders are usually really costly.
Aubameyang nets another
When the Gabon international joined Arsenal, I had this fear we would drag him down to our level of incompetence in large swathes. However Pierre appears to have been made from quite a stern material indeed, his bright start going a long way to confirming that.
Even in a largely dysfunctional team with no consistent midfield combination, even when he’s asked to play in a second-string squad, even when our creativity is faulty, Auba still manages to score almost every game.
He now has 6 goals and 1 assist in seven games, the best haul for an Arsenal player in the first seven games. Yesterday he found chances generally hard to come by, but still scored and forced McCarthy into a fine save with another shot.
His goal, which looked somewhat accidental without the benefit of replays, actually turned out to be a clever bit of play. Auba waited a second for the ball to be where he wanted it to before the squeezing it under McCarthy in a controlled poke.
I hope he carries this goalscoring form into the rest of the campaign, because God knows we’ll need it when fielding squads as experimental as we did yesterday. Speaking of which…
Welbeck steals the show
Before the game I was pondering where the goals were going to come from. I concluded that Ramsey was the only player capable of bringing them from the first minutes, Aubameyang aside. When I saw the Welshman rested, I felt really uneasy.
However I needn’t have worried. In Aaron’s absence Danny Welbeck stepped up in spectacular fashion. The Englishman set Aubameyang up for the first with a flick even Ramsey himself would be jealous of, before netting two goals himself, one of them a late winner.
True, he did his best Welbeckian impression in-between by missing an open goal from a couple of yards out, but that’s Danny for you. Frustrating and brilliant in equal measures even when he strikes a rich vein of form.
I truly don’t need to be picking at him after a match-winning performance like yesterday though. I’m just happy Welbeck found some form now, as he still has a large part to play in Europe and the Premier League this season.
The red cards farce
When the game was set to peter out at 3-2, suddenly tempers flared up. Stephens rounded off Wilshere in midfield to go on a run, but Jack was having none of it. He pulled Stephens back with such force Jack actually tore off part of his shirt and got a deserved yellow for that. However not before Stephens pushed Jack to the ground, earning himself a no less deserved red for violent conduct.
Just when I was about to applaud Marriner for getting both decisions spot-on, he went on and had a mare by sending off Elneny. Replays showed it was for a push on one of Southampton players. By this standard however Marriner could have sent off another half-dozen players from both sides, as everyone was pushing in that Stephens-Wilshere bust-up.
A truly dreadful decision, one we will hopefully appeal. The Egyptian was never a violent player, but perhaps more important is the fact we dearly need him for the Prem games. He has become a handy rotation player, without whose services Wenger will be forced to risk Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere. Not the best scenario, and not the best compliment I can make to Elneny, but here you go.
A word on WIlshere himself, by the way. He had another sub-par performance yesterday. Though unlucky not to earn an assist for Welbeck, he spent large parts of his cameo misplacing passes and losing the ball. He then topped it off with some bad behavior.
On this evidence I’m not sure he can champion a wage increase for himself. While I still don’t think a reduction is necessary, I’m now not sure he merits a bump, let alone a substantial one. We’ll see how this one plays out, but something tells me Jack needs Arsenal more than Arsenal need Jack, so he should swallow his pride and stay on if he truly loves the Club.
The last word
In what was I’m sure an entertaining game for a neutral, we managed to get the job done, if only just. Some key players were rested, some fringe players put in nice shifts (Welbeck and Iwobi first of all) and the three points are still in the bag.
The downsides are of course shoddy defending (not just for the goals, overall) and Elneny’s red. However the Premier League’s importance is relative now. The highest I can see us finish is 5th, and only because Chelsea contrived to lose points again, this time against West Ham at home. Conte team lost 5 and drew 1 of the last 8 league games, so the Blues are doing an even worse job in the league than we are.
Right, that’s your lot for now. I’ll hopefully be back for the weekend to cover Newcastle, in the meantime here’s hoping we smash CSKA in Moscow (very patriotic from me, I know) and land someone like Red Bull in the semis, and not Atletico (very courageous from me, I know).
So here’s for that semi-final and until later. Have a good week.
Russian Gooner. No, it’s not always cold in my home country 🙂
A staunch Arsenal supporter since 2004. Started writing about the Gunners in 2013.
Currently in London to get a degree in journalism.