Job done for Wenger and Arsenal in low-key Europa League campaign
Arsenal's qualification for the knockout stages of the Europa League should come as no surprise. As one of the highest seeded teams, and one with a long track record of Champions League participation, any other result would have been a real shock.
Yet at the end of the 0-0 draw with Red Star Belgrade on Thursday night, there were a smattering of boos from what was, at that stage, a half-empty Emirates.
Let's be clear: It wasn't a great Arsenal performance. The visitors probably had better chances to score a goal, and it wasn't much to look at in terms of entertainment, but ultimately this strange construct of a team got the job done.
The two matches against the Serbian league leaders have been stupefying affairs, low on quality on both sides. Arsenal's senior players, in particular, consistently failed to impose themselves. It took 10 seconds of brilliance between Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and then Olivier Giroud to break the deadlock in Belgrade, but they were unable to replicate that in the home match.
Wilshere had a goal-bound effort cleared off the line, but both Walcott and Giroud really struggled to make any kind of impact. Some of that is due to the fact that three-quarters of the midfield are fledgling professionals -- two of whom are playing out of position -- neither of them are going to give manager Arsene Wenger any trouble when it comes to picking their side for the trip to Manchester City this weekend.
And yet, Arsenal have advanced, and supporters have to ask what they would rather see. A team that is getting results and giving young prospects valuable experience while but struggling for cohesion and fluency, or one with more established stars but which would possibly have a negative impact on the one Wenger fields in the Premier League.
Not one of the players who started against Red Star Belgrade will start at the Etihad on Sunday. Wenger can field a team that is as fresh as you can get. They've had a week off to recharge since the 2-1 win over Swansea, and if they are to get something against a rampant City side, they need to take every little advantage they can get.
Imagine the conniptions people would have if Wenger decided to field Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil to give his side a better chance of scoring against Belgrade and one of them got injured. Or the fact they'd be then asked to play again just three days later and they looked jaded.
The Frenchman would be pilloried by fans who would suggest taking the Europa League seriously at this point is ridiculous. You can see that point. To be fair to the 68-year-old, he has been consistent with his selections in the Europa League and in the Carabao Cup. He sees it primarily as a chance to keep players match fit and to give opportunities to some of the young talent at the club. He also sees it as an opportunity for the "first team" to remain as fresh as possible for the Premier League.
It's a difficult task as he's basically managing two separate squads. While he's done it pretty well all things considered, he's been unable to produce the kind of fluent football he'd like from either starting XI. There have been flashes -- the 5-2 win over Everton showed what happens when they do click -- but it's not been anywhere near frequent enough.
So, while it's not fun to sit through the kind of dreary 0-0 match that Thursday night produced, it's worth putting that result in context. On paper City vs. Arsenal looks like a bit of a mismatch right now. The kind of attacking football Pep Guardiola's team are playing this season is difficult enough to cope with at the best of times, so there's no point hobbling yourself by fatiguing players.
The mix and match Europa League side isn't the best Arsenal can field, and there is clearly room for improvement, but it did the job it was supposed to do by qualifying. Now it's up to the Premier League team to show that they can benefit from the slight advantage Wenger's selection gives them as they head to Manchester on Sunday.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.