The best thing about Arsenal in the Europa League is that it acts as a sort of light relief to the woes of their domestic campaign, a welcome distraction to the misery of yet another bad result at the weekend.
There is something surreal about playing on Thursday night in the arse-end of Europe – it carries the same sort of feeling that playing in the League Cup did about 10 years ago, when Arsene Wenger would field his team of up and comers against game Championship sides.
It was always exciting to see the young guns of the day dazzle their way through the early rounds of the competition, typically coming unstuck in the quarter or semi-finals against Premier League opposition, despite a valiant effort.
This season’s Europa League exploits have felt a great deal like those days. The second string and peripheral players play in a way that the first team simply haven’t for some time. They are not as prone to panic nor as crippled with fear as their more senior colleagues, and that makes them a much more entertaining watch.
Against the likes of Cologne and BATE, the team has played some really encouraging, attacking football and, although they have conceded goals, they have responded on each occasion in the right way; by shrugging it off and going in search of more goals of their own.
Saturday’s capitulation against Watford by the first team was the antithesis of that. As soon as the penalty was scored, the team found itself crippled by fear, and the breakdown was swift. The fundamental aspects of the game went clean out of the window – keeping possession, completing passes, holding up the play, clearing the ball, panic made all of these simple things impossible.
The joy of watching the Europa League boys is that they don’t seem to be afflicted with the same nagging doubts – certainly not in the early rounds, anyway. Progression to the latter stages may change all that, of course, but for now it is, dare I say it, fun to watch the team play.
Another victory this evening (Thursday) against Red Star Belgrade will put the Gunners in a very strong position at the half-way point of the group stage, particularly with two home fixtures still to play.
The match is expected to see the return to action of the lesser spotted Mathieu Debuchy alongside Jack Wilshere, Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, David Ospina, Theo Walcott and co.
If nothing else, it gives these fringe players some much-needed minutes and a chance to force their way into consideration for a first team spot that is far from nailed down for anyone in the team at the moment.
With the pressure off, hopefully the team will be able to go out there and do what it does best; play the Arsenal brand of progressive, attacking, fluid football that, if done right, will be far too good for the likes of Belgrade, however nasty they want to make this clash.
I, for one, am looking forward to it.