The term ‘unwelcome distraction’ is often bandied about when discussing the Europa League. As the Champions League’s less attractive little sister, top six Premier League sides have often been perceived as looking at it with scorn.
It contributes to a chaotic fixture schedule and often forces teams to travel to some of the more far-flung corners of Europe. However, if you were to ask Arsène Wenger what he has thought of Arsenal’s Europa League adventure this season, he wouldn’t be that quick to deride it.
Although Arsenal’s pride took a battering by missing out on Champions League qualification last season, their foray into Europe’s second-string club competition has been a worthwhile and productive exercise in squad rotation and tactical experimentation. It has offered Wenger the perfect opportunity to blood several of the club’s promising youngsters; an opportunity he has seized.
Thursday evening’s trip to Cologne represents an intriguing assignment. With ten points from their first four games, Arsenal are assured of a place in the last-32 but have yet to mathematically tie up top spot. They can do just that with a win at the RheinEnergieStadion against the Bundesliga’s basement side.
Wenger’s Tactical Tinkering
When Cologne and their notoriously vociferous fanbase rolled into the Emirates Stadium back in September, they gave the Gunners a fright. Jhon Córdoba scored after just nine minutes when he pounced on some slack goalkeeping from David Ospina.
However, after Arsenal regrouped and Wenger shifted from a 3-4-3 to a 4-4-2 after replacing Rob Holding with Sead Kolašinac, they soon swept the Germans aside, running out relatively comfortable 3-1 winners.
Wenger has learned a lot about the tactical flexibility of his squad. While he started with Theo Walcott and Alexis Sánchez either side of Olivier Giroud against Cologne, he switched it up for the trip to BATE Borisov, which saw Walcott partner Giroud in attack, with Jack Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny and Joe Willock behind them as a midfield trio.
It worked, too, with Walcott and Giroud scoring three in a 4-2 win. Home and away against Red Star Belgrade, though, Giroud started up top, with Wilshere and Walcott playing off the Frenchman. Youngsters Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have been utilised as wing-backs from the beginning of the campaign.
For Thursday’s clash with Cologne, Wenger can shuffle his pack and tinker with the settings once more. Everton transfer target Giroud is recovering from a thigh injury while Walcott didn’t make the match-day squad in the win over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday due to a bout of illness.
With that, Wenger may look to give much-needed minutes to Danny Welbeck, while Alex Iwobi will be keen to start after dropping to the bench for the North London derby. It may mean Welbeck and Iwobi partnering one another in a dangerous looking attack.
Arsenal’s continental assignments have also seen a makeshift back three, and Thursday may be no different. There are doubts over Calum Chambers’ fitness, which means we could see a trio of Mathieu Debuchy, Per Mertesacker and Holding at the back.
It’s been a reasonably serene passage to this point for Arsenal, with three wins and a draw, and Wenger will fully expect his players to negotiate the latest assessment when they enter what is likely to be a highly-charged atmosphere inside the RheinEnergieStadion.