Arsenal 3 – 1 1FC Köln
It was a farce which Brian Rix would have been proud to write. Arsenal won their opening Europa League group stage match 3 – 1, so it was job done but it was an unforgettable evening for the wrong reasons.
Social media clips of Köln fans walking beforehand through London’s thoroughfares chanting and singing seemed good-natured. However, it turned ugly when they attempted to storm the turnstiles. Postponing the match was a genuine option at one point. By half-time, such was the poverty of Arsenal’s display that we wished it had been.
Sensationalist headlines about a return to the 1980s only underline why sales of newspapers are falling. The police figures announcing four arrests for public order offences undermine the stupidity of both the headline and report.
It’s fair to say some found it an unpleasant experience to go to their seats only to find the area teeming with Köln supporters. It’s something Arsenal has to address. One group to be the first to suffer will surely be touts and there won’t be any sympathy for them.
Some found the 9.05pm kick-off meant they either had to leave beforehand or at half-time to catch the last train home. My sympathies there; gone are the days of milk trains and rail services which ran to meet customers needs rather than on a profit motive.
Others enjoyed the atmosphere created, treating it like the mixed but equally partisan motor afficiandos, experts in the Caulfield Cup Betting. I understand that but there’s a balance to be found. Home seats are for home fans and while some despise ‘football tourists’, they are part of the fanbase. Equally, some parents might not want to expose their children to violence, potential or otherwise. They have as much right to attend a match as those who found the stadium vibrant with Arsenal voices inspired by the visiting support.
No-one Pushes Billy Hunt Around
Arsenal issued 3,000 tickets, in line with UEFA’s requirements. It’s easy with hindsight to tell them to increase that allocation. Consulting with Köln might have told them greater numbers of supporters were likely to travel. Might not, not would have. 17,000 supporters turning up without tickets was always going to create a flashpoint. Increasing ticket allocations for some fixtures is the only sensible solution but it’s a decision which must be taken beforehand not with hindsight.
So to the match itself. The first half was a disjointed affair reflecting the nine changes Wenger made to the starting line-up. A calamitous goalkeeping error from David Ospina followed by an outstanding finish from his fellow countryman Cordoba, gave Köln the lead. We huffed and puffed but were let down by sloppiness and Theo Walcott’s ability to be caught offside which took on Adebayor proportions at one point.
Nobody played well in that 45 minutes. Not the defence, midfield or attack. Some were less bad than others it has to be said but it proved to be a litmus test for a player’s popularity. It meant Theo, Elneny, Holding, Bellerin and Alexis copped most of the flak.
Holding found criticism easy to attract. A marauding run into the Köln half ended when the third German defender proved one too many. Derisory cries accompanied the sight of Elneny scampering back to halt the ensuing counter-attack while experience tells Holding to pass after beating two men; he had options.
Don’t Even Stop For A Cough
As big an issue is the lack of defensive planning: neither Bellerin nor Elneny dropped into the centre to cover. Contrast that with Köln in the same situation; a midfielder dropped into defence, an attacker to midfield, keeping their banks of four and five intact. Would that we had the same defensive discipline.
It’s important that Wenger keeps faith in Holding and improve the player, rather than consigning him to the Under-23s as some sort of punishment. We’ve seen what can happen to players in those circumstances and the damage it does.
The second half was a different story. Holding gave way to Sead Kolasinac and a back three shifted to a back four. Within five minutes, the changes worked as Walcott’s deflected hit and hope pass fell to the Bosnian to thunder home the equaliser. The Schalke shirt worn underneath his Arsenal top to taunt the visitors underlines why supporters have taken to him. Ability and a heart worn firmly on the sleeve.
Credit to Walcott for his part in the build-up. He deserved the good fortune his cross attracted after timing his run exquisitely to beat the offside trap.
Köln were on the back foot and the match panned out how we expected it to. Arsenal eventually found the goals to ram home their superiority. Alexis latching onto an overhit pass, cut inside and continued running across the edge of the area before whipping in an excellent curling shot. The goalkeeper crouched and wrong-footed watched in despair as the ball arced beyond his reach.
The third came from Hector Bellerin when he followed up after Walcott’s shot was saved, burying the rebound under the goalkeeper’s despairing lunge. Not as eye-catching as the previous two goals but no less important.
I Could Be A Human Machine
Swapping formations at half-time doesn’t signal the end of the back three experiment. Sunday will see more pressure put on the XI and a greater intensity overall in the match. Will it make a difference? You betcha! Expect Mustafi, Koscielny and Monreal to form a defensive trio once more.
There’s nothing to read into last night for the trip to Stamford Bridge. The line-up will see another nine changes back to the one which beat Bournemouth, most likely. Maybe Alexis will keep his place; that’s a decision the manager must make but otherwise, he doesn’t particularly need to rock the boat.
It was good to see Jack Wilshere return to the pitch. His substitute appearance proved a useful cameo with some neat passing. I’d expect him to be on the bench again this weekend with a start on the cards against Doncaster on the horizon.
Finally, a new ‘Record of the Week’ will land on Dad’s Jukebox later to accompany the Top of the Pops farewell in the Times of our Lives series.