A second-string Arsenal side struggled to a 1-0 defeat to Köln away from home on Thursday evening, but sealed top spot in their Europa League group anyway. Despite a disappointing team performance, a draw between Red Star Belgrade and BATE Borisov secured the Gunners’ progress to the knockout rounds in top spot.
Arséne Wenger’s side controlled the flow of the game against their German hosts, but often struggled to turn their ball possession into genuine scoring chances. This, along with the counter-attacking approach of an opposition who are bottom of the Bundesliga at present, made for an unentertaining encounter for the neutral.
Incredibly, Köln have yet to win a single one of their 12 league matches so far this season. However, in front of a raucous crowd willing them on to victory, they fought desperately against an Arsenal side who, making 11 changes from the team that beat Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, were not quite so motivated.
Ultimately, one goal was all that was needed to settle the affair. Sehrou Guirassy, who was a problem for the Premier League outfit’s back line at times, won a penalty after going down in the box on 62 minutes. The Frenchman then got back up, dusted himself off and finished with aplomb.
There were no further goals as Köln stood strong against a late Arsenal resurgence to keep their own Europa League hopes alive. Here, Football Whispers picks out four main tactical takeaways from the match.
GIROUD BLOWS HIS CHANCE
Competition for places at Arsenal is intense, particularly so in attack. The summer arrival of Alexandre Lacazette led to Olivier Giroud being demoted to the substitutes’ bench, and he failed to give his manager any reason to change his mind over this on Thursday night.
The centre-forward is renowned for his aerial prowess and hold-up play, but neither of those qualities were on show against a determined Köln defence. The German side lined up with a back three, meaning the Gunners’ frontman often found himself surrounded and unable to positively impact the game.
Giroud could have had better supply, with Danny Welbeck – as well as his replacement, Alex Iwobi – frequently giving possession away, but the striker also failed to carve out openings for himself. He was static, inactive throughout most of the 90 minutes; hence why, goalkeeper David Ospina and Welbeck – who was subbed at half-time – aside, he had the fewest touches of any Arsenal starter.
On the basis of this outing, Lacazette has nothing to be worried about.
HOLDING HELPS ARSENAL BUILD
While some of the more experienced Arsenal players, such as Giroud, failed to make a case for their inclusion in future matches, Rob Holding did.
The 22-year-old Englishman started on the left-hand side of Wenger’s back three and played an important role in the match.
Köln defended in a rough 5-2-3 shape, essentially matching Arsenal man-for-man. However, they opted not to pressurise their visitors’ defence in the build-up stage, instead retaining their shape and shifting from side to side to close off passing lanes.
In these circumstances, ambition is needed among the defenders with possession to try and progress their team’s attacks into the middle and final third. Holding often looked to help in this respect, playing incisive balls through pressure into dangerous central areas.
He didn’t look to dribble forward and attack the opposition defensive block, but he did provide enough quality with his passing to suggest he could comfortably replace Nacho Monreal at left centre-back in future.
All in all he made 101 passes with an impeccable accuracy rate of 98 per cent. In both categories, he came out ahead of every single one of his team-mates.
MAITLAND-NILES IS THE NEW OX
With build-up through central areas difficult for Arsenal due to the lack of movement up front and Köln’s stout defensive shape, they were often forced to look for inspiration out wide. Luckily they found some in the form of Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The 20-year-old is a versatile player capable of playing almost anywhere in midfield, something only confirmed by his starting at left wing-back on Thursday night. However, despite the strange position, he relished the chance to prove his class, driving inward to take on his man and combine with team-mates at every opportunity.
In total he made three key passes, which was more than any other Arsenal player, and completed an impressive five dribbles. His pace, skill and drive will have reminded many of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s showings during his brief time in the role. Now, with the Ox having moved on to Liverpool, they have found his successor in Maitland-Niles.
GUIRASSY IMPRESSES FOR KÖLN
Due to the way Köln set up, their attackers had few chances to get on the ball and make things happen. They were often reduced to running into space in attacking transitions, but Guirassy was impressive throughout.
The 21-year-old Frenchman hasn’t started regularly for the club this season, with five of his nine Bundesliga outings coming from the bench, but he didn’t look out of place in this match. As well as winning and scoring the penalty, he completed one dribble and occasionally caused problems for Mathieu Debuchy down the left.
With pace, aggression on the ball and no little trickery, Guirassy must be knocking on the door of the Köln first team, especially when considering they have scored just four times in 12 league games so far this season.