So with last night begun a season (at least) of Thursday night football. With kick-off delayed an hour due to the issues with the Cologne supporters that descended on the capital, Arsenal laboured through a dreadful first half in which they played as if they were still waiting for the game to begin.
A quick note on the German fans before I move on to the match, and that is to say that two friends I have spoken to said that their dealings with the away support were nothing but positive. The Germans are not known for their hooliganism or desire to fight, unlike some nations, though instead are simply renowned for their passion of the game. Simply put the vast majority of those who got into the home sections last night just wanted to see their team play in Europe.
Qualifying, and facing Arsenal, was a big deal to a club who had been relegated as recently as five years ago. Though the Europa League may come with an element of snobbery from our side this term, it is easy to forget that for fans of a team like Cologne, last night was a cup final and their biggest game in years.
With that in mind, and the hindsight of a 3-1 victory, I am actually quite pleased they scored first and “had their moment” to celebrate. Football fans across the country, who had tuned in and ensured they, were live tweeting about Arsenal’s maiden appearance in the Champions League’s ugly step-sister, delighted in the visitors taking a surprise early lead.
David Ospina has been criticised from most quarters regarding the goal, though I do not know if he did too much wrong. The Colombian was alert to the through ball, and I wondered what the reaction would have been if he’d stayed glued to his line, and therefore not got lobbed but allowed the striker to have a free run at goal instead. Probably, it was just the connection he got on his clearance that could be considered as requiring improvement. He was unlucky the ball bounced off the shin of an opposing player, and unluckier still that Jhon Cordoba’s had the quickness of mind to ‘Bentley’ him. Actually, this was a European game, so perhaps I should say ‘Nayim’d’ him…
The rest of the first period was abject from the Gunners. Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal passed the ball between themselves as the Germans sat off, and Alexis Sanchez came so deep for any semblance of possession that he was occasionally behind both Alex Iwobi and Mo Elneny. Twice, down the right, Hector Bellerin would have been in a nice attacking position had the ball not been overhit to him, but in both instances, our game was off key. Theo Walcott was living offside.
Fortunately, though, Arsene Wenger had Kolasinac up his sleeve. Even the manager, often reluctant to make changes too early, saw that the shape was not working, introducing the Bosnian at half time. Within minutes, he had equalised, thundering a volley out of the sky with sublime technique. He is already a cult hero, and more finishes like this one will only add to his popularity.
We were then much better, controlling the game and creating a couple of chances. Alexis Sanchez then gave us the lead, cutting in and bending one into the net. The hit was unexpected, catching everyone off guard, and it was a welcome relief in what had been a poor game from the Chilean to that point.
With the outcome now looking decided, 3-1 always looked more likely than 2-2, and that is what Bellerin made it with ten minutes to go. Kolasinac again got down the left, latched on to a clever Sanchez pass and swept the ball across the box. Jack Wilshere, on as a sub, cleverly let the ball run across him, confusing two defenders. Walcott’s effort was blocked, but Bellerin showed real desire to beat the defender and goalkeeper and smash the ball home from close range.
Two things to touch on, I’d say.
Firstly, the change in formation. 4-3-2-1 worked far better than the three at the back formation last night, but my mystery is why Wenger seems to believe it is one or the other despite the opposition. Personally, I think the one we moved to for the second half can be deployed with a lot of success at home, against teams who we should be beating. It is a system the players know well and it is one we can use when we want to control the game from an attacking point of view.
However, I think three at the back (and players in correct positions), could be used more successfully away from home, in big games, in the way that it worked in the FA Cup Final. I do not think it has to be a case of one shape or the other and that is that. We need to adapt, and I think there is room for both systems this year.
Lastly, a word on a couple of the players. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was excellent in the second half-last night, playing in a much more familiar role centrally. He controlled the midfield with a calmness some of our players over the years just have not exuded, so that was nice to see. He was unlucky not to score too.
In addition, Wilshere looked sharp I thought. After one poor touch early on, he grew into the game and played a big role in our third goal with his intelligent leave. We lack creativity and he just has that something a little different, and I am desperate for him to be able to show it more this season. He also played a lovely little backheel near the end, delighting the crowd.
Overall, last night was a lot of fun. After a woeful start, we settled and eventually took the three points. Players that have not played much football yet this season got important minutes under their belts, and as I was in May, I am still looking forward to the Europa campaign ahead.
Roll on Chelsea and a similar result, if not start, on Sunday.