Arsenal progress in Europa League but Wilshere rues Red Star Belgrade acrobatics

David Hytner at the Emirates Stadium on 2 November 2017

Arsène Wenger had described it as his “biggest pleasant experience”. Never before, the Arsenal manager said, had he seen a squad that was so focused on every competition. In other words, his second-string team had the bit between their teeth in the Europa League. They were on a mission to succeed.

Those words rang hollow after this tortuous display, when his players struggled sorely for creative inspiration. They did chisel out a couple of first-half chances for Olivier Giroud while Jack Wilshere went the closest to an Arsenal breakthrough in the 64th minute. His chip was cleared off the line in acrobatic style by Damien Le Tallec. Yet it was a painfully tough watch – an evening that the Arsenal fans in attendance will never get back and will not want to relive.

At least Arsenal did not lose, which might have happened because Red Star Belgrade had a few moments of their own. Richmond Boakye twice ran through only to fluff his lines while Vujadin Savic saw a first-half header clawed up and against the crossbar by goalkeeper Matt Macey – who was the only Arsenal player to emerge with any credit.

Moreover, the point was enough to ensure Arsenal’s qualification to the last 32 because Bate Borisov lost at Cologne. It was celebrated only by the boisterous Red Star supporters, without whom the occasion would have fallen completely flat. They are now one clear of Borisov in second place in the group standings.

For the Arsenal crowd, the full-time whistle was the prompt for boos and groans and who could blame them? Francis Coquelin, who endured a torrid evening, seemed to take issue with the reaction yet he was the worst performer in red and there was plenty of competition.

Wenger had described it as a “big game” beforehand, which was stretching things a bit, but it was an opportunity for those who have found their opportunities limited in the Premier League. Nobody grasped it, apart from Macey, who remains a distant third in the pecking order, and possibly the 18-year-old midfielder Joe Willock, who made a couple of surges.

Coquelin looked more comfortable when he did not have the ball, which is an indictment of any midfield player, even a destructive one, and there was a moment in the first half when he led a break so tentatively it was as though he was waiting to make a tackle rather than a through-ball. His attempt at the latter was easily cut out.

Wilshere tried hard but was peripheral; Giroud battled at the beginning before he faded while Theo Walcott could not get anything to come off – his travails were summed up by a 79th minute spin and air-kick.

Giroud’s first chance was the clearer of his two and it came after Willock and Wilshere had combined to play in Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who put a move on Filip Stojkovic and beat him – which was something of a collectors’ item in this game. The wing-back’s low cut-back teed up Giroud to swipe left-footed and first time for goal, but Milan Borjan saved at his near post.

Giroud’s opportunity on 35 minutes followed an excellent piece of hustling by Willock. He won the ball off Red Star’s screening midfielder, Mitchell Donald, and surged away from him but, from his pass, Giroud found that the angle was against him. Borjan had left his line smartly and he was able to block.

Arsenal tried to make the game against counterattacking opponents but their play was stodgy and pockmarked with errors. The lack of cohesion was jarring; the movement off-the-ball ponderous. Where were the options for the man in possession?

Matt Macey tips Vujadin Savic's header on to the crossbar.
Matt Macey tips Vujadin Savic ‘s header on to the crossbar. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

Had Red Star boasted a finisher, the evening could have been even bleaker for Arsenal. Boakye, though, had mislaid his shooting boots. He burst clean through in first-half stoppage time only to curl wastefully wide of the near post, albeit when Macey had got his angles right, while he sliced his shot on 81 minutes when similarly well placed.

Slavoljub Srnic extended Macey with a powerful drive towards the end of the first half before Red Star had their big moment. Nemanja Radonjic’s shot deflected up for Savic and his header looked as though it would loop over Macey. The giant goalkeeper threw out a hand and tipped the ball on to the woodwork and away.

“Macey took his chance very well,” Wenger said, groping for the positives. “He’s huge and quick and you don’t often find that combination. He’s very agile as well. I was pleased to give him a chance.”

Wenger also admitted that his team had “lacked a bit of quality and vision in the final ball and the ability to find the right space”. They almost nicked it when Wilshere stuck out a boot to keep a move alive on the left-hand side of the area and, after Maitland-Niles won the ball, he took over. Wilshere’s effort was cute; it beat Borjan and was heading in until Le Tallec leapt into a volleyed clearance from in front of his line.

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