There’s never a good time to rest players. After Arsenal suffered defeat in the opening fixture of their Champions League campaign, Arsene Wenger’s decision to leave out several key men has come under scrutiny. However, the Gunners face a hectic schedule over the next few weeks, and Wenger was going to have to make changes sooner or later. With a massive Premier League fixture against Chelsea this weekend, this was as good a time as any.
The uncomfortable truth is that the XI Wenger selected should still have been good enough to win the game. Unfortunately, the understudies simply failed to perform.
Although Wenger rotated heavily, he will feel he fielded a team of the requisite calibre to win the game.
Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey didn’t even make the trip, while Theo Walcott and Francis Coquelin began on the substitutes bench. In their stead, Wenger handed starts to the likes of Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Debuchy, Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud. Most of those players are seasoned internationals, and all should have been able to shine against Zagreb. This was their chance to show Wenger they deserved to keep their place for the trip to Stamford Bridge at Saturday.
However, for most of those players this was a disastrous audition. On the right-hand side, poor positional play from both Debuchy and Oxlade-Chamberlain was key to allow Dinamo to take the lead.
Debuchy has spoken publicly about his frustration at being behind Bellerin in the pecking order, but on this evidence Wenger’s faith in the young Spaniard is justified. As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he remains in the curious position of offering a perennial goal threat — at both ends of the pitch. He’s a dynamic dribbler capable of opening up the opposition, but too often makes mistakes in the defensive third.
In the other full-back role, Kieran Gibbs’ lacklustre display cemented Nacho Monreal as first-choice left-back. Gibbs’ failure to challenge for the ball at the near post for Zagreb’s second goal was particularly ugly. Aerial duels is one of the areas in which Monreal has made most improvement in recent months. It seems Gibbs is still falling short.
Arteta made his first start for the club since November, so a touch of rustiness is to be expected. However, it was telling that Arsenal looked significantly stronger in midfield once Francis Coquelin was introduced — even with just 10 men. Arteta remains an intelligent and accurate distributor of the ball, his physical decline makes it difficult for him to dominate in the centre of the park.
Then there’s Giroud.
Wenger’s decision to start with his fellow Frenchman was a show of faith in a forward who has experienced a difficult few weeks. The Gunners boss will have hoped to have been rewarded by a barnstorming display from the powerful forward. Instead, he got a meek surrender. When things didn’t go his way, Giroud collected two needless bookings and was dismissed before half-time. Perhaps he could not face the ignominy of substitution.
The fact Walcott rose from the substitutes bench to score Arsenal’s consolation effectively confirmed his status as Arsenal’s first-choice striker. Come Saturday, it is surely he who will be charged with testing the Chelsea back four’s fading pace.
Wenger will have wanted to come away from Zagreb with some difficult decisions to make. Instead, the existing hierarchy has simply been reinforced.
The next opportunity for the second string to impress could come in the Capital One Cup against Tottenham. They must improve significantly on their European endeavours if they are to give Wenger any kind of selection headache.
Read more from James McNicholas, aKA Gunnerblog