Cologne 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners top the group despite turgid performance in Germany

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Arsene Wenger picked an experienced team for last night’s game against Cologne and my suspicion is he did so to ensure we topped the group. Although our result didn’t go the way we wanted, we still did that because the game between BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade ended in a draw, but there wasn’t a lot to enjoy about the 90 minutes in Germany.

The home side were basically rubbish, and rather than turn the screw and put them to the sword, we kinda sank to their level. Although we had some first half chances – and I think it speaks volumes that the closest anyone came to scoring was Francis Coquelin with a rasping shot that fizzed wide and one that hit the post – we settled down into a second gear pedestrian performance, playing like men wearing wellies too big for them in a muddy field.

Before the game the manager spoke about how some of the senior players, perhaps aggrieved at playing Thursday night football and not in the Premier League, wanted to put on a show to force their way into the reckoning for the domestic games. After five games in the Europa League this season, none of them have done that. Per Mertesacker was reliable at the back, but we’ve seen very little from the likes of Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Jack Wilshere or Olivier Giroud to suggest they should be anything other than the bit-part players they are right now.

We had plenty of the ball but did precious little with it. Ainsley Maitland-Niles showed some industry and had some nice touches in the final third, but was let down by his delivery from wide areas. It was a constant problem all night, our crosses were either too floaty, too deep, or too easy to deal with.

Our answer to that was for Wilshere to try and recreate that Norwich goal every few minutes. It almost came off once but the precision required to do that is absurd and it’s going to fail 99 times out of 100. We almost got to 100 attempts at it though.

Alex Iwobi came on for Danny Welbeck whose comeback lasted 45 minutes. Apparently this was pre-planned, but wouldn’t it have been better for the team to give him 30 minutes at the end of the game instead? The Nigerian did add a bit of a spark here and there, but not enough to get the Arsenal fire going. We were wet kindling and his flame didn’t burn brightly enough.

Cologne had done nothing much all game – as you’d expect from a team that has won just three of their eighteen matches this season – but midway through the second half Sehrou Guirassy took a dive in the box, the referee bought it and pointed to the spot. The Frenchman dusted himself off and made it 1-0. David Ospina showed solidarity with Petr Cech by leaping out of the way of the ball. In seriousness though, the issue is not our goalkeepers being unable to save them, it’s how many penalties we concede – and I accept that some of them are really, really soft decisions.

Reiss Nelson came on for Calum Chambers, and showed some invention, one run ending with a shot poked at the keeper. Eddie Nketiah was introduced with just seven minutes remaining, but there was nothing in midfield or the wide areas to provide the creativity we needed to get the goal.

A late shot by Wilshere was tipped over and that was that. Our fifth defeat away from home in all competitions this season, but one offset by the fact it didn’t really matter as the other game went our way. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger said:

We had a lot of possession. We lost the game to one shot, basically. It was a very nice penalty that we have to take on board. It was honestly not a penalty at all.

We missed a little bit of the accuracy in our passing in the final third that is required to score more goals. We had plenty of dangerous situations but we always missed a little something to finish our chances.

It means that the final game of the group stage is one that Wenger can, if he wants to, experiment with, and I’d really like him to do that. We all know what some of the senior fringe players can do – or not do – at this point, and they’ve had five games to show the manager they should be playing more than Europa League football (they shouldn’t).

I want to see him go all in on the kids. Some experience here and there, but you rarely get an opportunity like this, assuming you see it as one. A home game for which there’s no pressure, and it’s a chance to put some of the young talent in the spotlight. Let’s start Reiss Nelson in his natural position the front three, for example. Ainsley Maitland-Niles in central midfield where the boss says he’ll play his football in the future.

Let’s have Eddie starting up front, perhaps give some of our young defenders a go, and que sera, sera. The result won’t matter because we’ll still top the group, and it’ll be a fantastic experience for some of these players, and something different for the fans. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing a team similar to last night’s trundle through the motions, so let’s add a bit of fizz to things with the kids and see what they can do.

After that, when we get the knock-out stages, Wenger has got to start thinking much more carefully about his team selections. If he wanted some of these players to make his life difficult, they really haven’t done that, and this trophy is a realistic achievement for us this season. He’ll have to find the balance between that and the Premier League, but that’s why he’s paid the big bucks.

Anyway, let’s never speak of those 90 minutes again, and we can turn our focus to this weekend’s trip to Burnley in the Premier League.

For now, I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, in which there’s some – but relatively little – chat about last night, along with a teacup GIF-gate discussion about fans, media, social media, journalism and lots more. Listen and subscribe below.