Progression to the Round of 16 in the Europa Cup has put a very thin silver lining on yesterday’s game. A game where the 5th best team in the Swedish Allsvenskan, on a rather incredible run from early qualifying to the Round of 32, walked into the 6th best team in one of the biggest leagues in the world and nearly played them off the pitch and out of Europa. Arsenal played poorly and lost. Fans knew it. Players knew it. Arsene Wenger knew it.
And yet, after the game, despite all the negatives, Wenger stated “‘We prepared properly and in a serious way”. Arsenal made a host of changes, as any team would with a three away goal lead, but the gulf of talent should still have been there. No offense to Ostersunds FK, who are a plucky, dynamic team, but Emirates is the only place Arsenal seems to play good football and beaten some very good teams and not a tie they should be expected to do well in, let alone win. Arsenal opened the door and gave up the game.
David Ospina looked culpable on both goals. The defense was putrid. Ainsley Maitland-Niles struggled again to be a central midfielder alongside Mohamed Elneny. Henrik Mkhitaryan did his best to force things but was largely wasteful. Jack Wilshere failed to make any imprint on this game. Danny “Only Europa Striker We Have Left” Welbeck might as well stood offside all game for all the ball found him. Only Alex Iwobi seemed to have a good game and even he was far more wasteful that anyone would like.
But more than one bad game, a troubling trend is emerging whenever the first XI is largely rested: Arsenal play terribly. Most of the Europa League games have been unimpressive. Their disastrous FA Cup exit lacked any regulars. Losses to Bournemouth and Watford follow this trend. Arsenal struggle in form whenever major pieces are out.
It isn’t as though this should be expected either. Sure, a team without Mesut Ozil won’t be as good but much of the second string players practice and play together in many of the secondary cups, moreso this year due to the Europa group stage. Still, they look as though they barely know each other. It is a baffling trend and not one that speaks of “serious preparation”.
The two areas this is massively apparent is the defense and central midfield. The latter is largely a case of lack of personnel. AMN is not a CM; Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey were rightly rested ahead of a cup final; Elneny, for all his energy, is limited in vision and looked to more for defensive positioning. And beyond those four its... *crickets*. Arsenal lack central midfielders and no amount of magic is bringing Santi Cazorla back form the dead. For all the good the transfers of new attackers does, Arsenal could have really used a Kim Kallstrom just to provide a modicum of support rather than square peg/round hole a young player. It was telling that the presence of Xhaka in the second half settled the team allowing the match up to not fully get away.
However, that situation is largely tenable beyond injury. Defensively, Arsenal look beyond help. The nightmare that is the Rob Holding - Calum Chambers Connection should have all involved a little worried. Neither of these players are reportedly bad. Holding came with a pretty bright future with hopes of emerging as a starting centerback. Chambers had an excellent loan with Middlesborough last year. Together, they look entirely naive. With Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac providing extra attack, neither Holding or Chambers appeared comfortable covering for their advanced position. Without the more steadying Nacho Monreal or Laurent Koscielny, there appears to be a lack of cohesion. They were, as a defensive unit along with Ospina, Bellerin, Elneny and Kolasinac, beaten all to easily and perhaps fortunate to only give up two goals.
As for the attack, the two game debut of Danny Welbeck as sole striker was less than appealing. For large periods he is invisible and when the ball does find its way to him the end product is still not there. If it is to click, Danny will have to show better. Wilshere looked completely overwhelmed in the number 10 spot, managing only 30 passes and 4 dribbles, and despite their best efforts of Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, they front four didn’t function all that well. In future Europa games, it would be surprising to see Jack take up that position again, but this is largely their attack until Lacazette heals. It isn’t incredibly promising.
It’s easy to blame apathy. Three goals up and at home, the tie must have felt done and dusted. It’s easy to blame Wenger for either for squad selection or preparation. But all to often, the second team has failed to show that any game is comfortable. Only a 6-0 thrashing of BATE Borisov, the worst team in their Europa Group, could be held in comparison. Something feels functionally wrong with the depth at Arsenal.
It is also too easy to simply say they are not good enough. This collection of players should be more than enough to handle many teams in Europa, domestic cups and be counted on to be depth in the League. But they aren’t. Whether by style, construction or tactics, Arsenal’s depth fails to put up convincing performances when relied on. For a team that looks to compete in four competitions every year, that’s a massive problem that requires fixing, whether with new players, a new manager or new philosophy.
Until then, if Wenger is serious about winning the Europa League, he better count on a full strength squad from now until may. Assuming they can even get past the Round of 16 jinx when facing AC Milan.