It’s hard to argue that earning a point in the Parc des Princes in the opening game of a new Champions League campaign isn’t a good result. On paper Paris Saint-Germain are comfortably the toughest opponents Arsenal will face in Group A this season and a draw away to them is not one that should be snuffed at. When you consider that the Gunners lost their two opening games of last season’s competition to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos, this point is certainly a marked improvement. However, whilst the result itself is something to be content with, the performance from the Arsenal side raised a number of concerns that should not be quickly forgotten.
The truth of the matter is that were it not for some inspired saves from David Ospina and some profligate finishing from Edinson Cavani, the home side would have had the game wrapped up by half-time and the Gunners fans would once more be bemoaning another dire European result. Thankfully, a dismal first half display from Arsenal was rectified somewhat by an improved showing in the second, and in the 77th minute of the game Alexis Sanchez struck emphatically to earn his side a rather fortuitous point. Whilst it is fine to be delighted with the point and to have optimism for the rest of the group stage, with the supposed lesser challenges of FC Basel of Switzerland and Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria up next, Arsene Wenger and his squad must not pass on the chance to learn some vital lessons from how this match played out.
First of all, the initial team selection is one that will still have fans scratching their heads. It’s worth pointing out that one bold call Wenger made – naming David Ospina as the man between the sticks ahead of Petr Cech – did end up paying off, with the Colombian making a number of impressive saves to deny Cavani throughout the game, but the same could not be said for how the manager sent out his midfield and attack. It seems peculiar that Granit Xhaka, despite being brought in for a large fee this summer and looking like a nailed-on starter for the first few games of the season at least, did not get a chance to play from the start. The Swiss midfielder’s imposing presence and tenacity in the challenge made him seem like the perfect player for a tough European away game such as this, especially considering he would be physically fresh after sitting out the weekend’s game over Southampton. Xhaka might well still being settling in at the club but Wenger’s decision to leave him out of the starting line-up for the past two games after his great display away at Watford is puzzling at best.
The omission of Xhaka meant that Wenger trusted Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla as his midfield pair, and whilst the duo undoubtedly have enjoyed some great displays together since their partnership first began to blossom at the end of the 2014/15 season, for large swathes of the game on Tuesday night they looked overpowered and unable to control the game. There’s no shame in going away to a team like PSG and admitting you’re the weaker side and setting up accordingly, and throughout the first half it was difficult to stop feeling like leaving Xhaka on the bench rather than incorporating him into a midfield three was a mistake that cost Arsenal any sort of foothold in the game. Marco Verratti and Angel di Maria enjoyed a great deal of space in which to operate and on another day the Parisians could have punished Arsenal for their inability to compete in the middle. Thankfully, they didn’t, but you have to hope that the first half display in particular will force Wenger to reconsider how he sets up his midfield in games such as these in the future. Someone like Xhaka, who can win possession and distribute the ball effectively from deep, would have been tailor-made for a game like this.
Even more surprising than the lack of Xhaka in the Arsenal midfield was the fact Alexis Sanchez was once again asked to play up front with the two Alex’s, Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, operating on either flank alongside him. The signing of Lucas Perez at the end of August was pleasing because Wenger had seemingly purchased a proper striker to compete with Olivier Giroud for a starting position, yet despite having both players fit and available, the manager instead opted to persist with using the Chilean as the team’s sole front man. It was understandable to see him start there at the beginning of the season as Giroud was lacking sharpness and Perez hadn’t signed yet, but now it’s hard to make any good argument as to why Wenger is persisting with using him as a striker. The worst thing about it isn’t only that Alexis failed to offer any sort of threat when playing on his own against Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, it’s that he is also sorely missed on the wings. He is at his best when collecting the ball from deep and running at a defence – something he did well when he moved to the left after Giroud’s arrival – and with Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling for form, it seems like a no brainer now that either Giroud or Perez should start up front with Alexis returning to the wings moving forward.
The strange selections in the starting line-up are strange in and of themselves, but they are also part of a wider problem with regards to this Arsenal team’s shape and structure. When facing quality opposition, it’s vital that each player knows what their job is and how they should go about it, and for most of this season this has not been the case for the Gunners. It’s acceptable to have one player afforded the freedom to roam, with Mesut Ozil rightfully given this privelage more often than not, but this only works when the rest of the team is able to maintain a shape around him. The defensive issues Arsenal had in the first half came from Cazorla and Coquelin seemingly being stuck in two minds over whether they should be pressing or dropping off, whilst the lack of cover Iwobi offered to Monreal saw PSG’s right-back Serge Aurier enjoy a great deal of space down Arsenal’s left-hand side. In attack, the shaky midfield and ineffective wingers saw little to no attacking moves being built with any coherence, and Sanchez’s insistence on dropping to deep from the striker’s position left the PSG defence twiddling their thumbs for most of the opening hour. Right now it feels like Arsene Wenger is struggling to determine what his best team his and how he wants them to play, and it’s costing the club at the moment. What’s even more frustrating is that the solutions to this issue don’t feel as difficult to ealise than he’s making them out to be.
It’s great to have options and to have depth, and this current Arsenal squad might well be the deepest we’ve seen under Wenger. It’s something all of the best clubs have as more often than not a large squad is a necessity if the team is to challenge for honours on multiple fronts. However, what this must not mean is that manager sees it as a license to tinker too much, and whilst some rotation should be welcomed and encouraged, it’s vital that Wenger stops putting square pegs in round holes and starts playing the best players he has at his disposal. The goalkeeper debate is a nice one to have and the defence looks settled, but the shape of midfield and the personnel used in the attack needs to be addressed. As previously said, drawing 1-1 away at Paris Saint-Germain is no mean feat, but if the result overshadows the concerning aspects of the performance and lessons aren’t learned, the team will start losing games such as these. Wenger can be happy with the point and look forward to the future, but he mustn’t be afraid to learn from what was undoubtedly a lucky escape.