Arsenal navigate pitfalls of Ostersunds to pick up straightforward win
OSTERSUND, Sweden -- Three quick thoughts after Arsenal beat Ostersunds 3-0 on Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie.
1. Arsenal navigate pitfalls to earn straightforward win
After all the warnings about the potential pitfalls of this game, it couldn't have been much more straightforward for Arsenal. Two goals inside the opening 25 minutes put the Gunners on the brink of reaching the Europa League's last 16 as they navigated icy cold temperatures, an artificial pitch and plucky upstarts Ostersunds without any difficulty at all.
While much had been made about the difficult conditions of playing in northern Sweden in February, Arsene Wenger's decision to field a full-strength lineup meant this game was about as one-sided as a look at the team sheets would have suggested.
Nacho Monreal continued his surprising scoring form by slotting home a rebound in the 13th minute and defender Sotirios Papagiannopoulos turned a cross from Henrikh Mkhitaryan into his own net in the 24th to put the visitors in full control. By the time Mesut Ozil slotted in the third shortly before the hour mark, the tie had long felt like it was over. Tom Pettersson had a late chance to give the hosts a bit of hope, but his penalty was saved by David Ospina.
Ostersunds have pulled off plenty of surprises in just getting to this stage, but overturning this deficit at the Emirates next week would be a miracle indeed. For Arsenal, this type of efficient, business-like display was sorely needed after last weekend's disappointing 1-0 loss to Tottenham, which left them eight points outside the Premier League's top four and looking at the Europa League as perhaps their only route back into the Champions League.
The seemingly safe advantage will also allow Wenger to rest some players in next Thursday's return leg, ensuring they are fresh for the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City.
Despite a wind-chill factor close to -10 Celsius at kickoff, Arsenal looked comfortable from the start at 9,000-capacity Jamtkraft Arena and didn't have to wait long for the breakthrough.
Alex Iwobi's shot was spilled by goalkeeper Aly Keita straight into the path of Monreal, who had an open net to slot the ball into. Arsenal kept pouring forward and the second goal came when Mkhitaryan was trying to find Danny Welbeck at the far post, only for Papagiannopoulos to divert it in himself. It was unfortunate for Welbeck, who would have had an easy tap-in for a confidence-boosting goal as he made his first start since returning from an injury. He was Arsenal's only available senior forward, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup tied and Alexandre Lacazette injured.
But on this icy night, Arsenal had all the firepower they needed.
2. Maitland-Niles relishes central role
Perhaps one shouldn't make too much of Wenger's decision to bench Granit Xhaka for this game and finally give Ainsley Maitland-Niles a chance to play in his favoured position in central midfield. But it felt like more than just a casual rotation as Xhaka's performances have been increasingly questioned in recent games. If this was a proper audition for Maitland-Niles, he handled it well.
The 20-year-old Arsenal academy product has been used in a number of positions since breaking into the first team last season, but rarely in the central role he relishes. But with Jack Wilshere left at home and Aaron Ramsey injured, he formed a partnership with Mohamed Elneny that was tidy and effective.
Maitland-Niles brings an entirely different skill set to the position than Xhaka, whose main weapon is his ability to send perfectly weighted balls over the top of the defence. Maitland-Niles, in contrast, bases his game on speed, quick one-two exchanges and a willingness to take on defenders one-on-one. His presence brought more mobility and fluidity to Arsenal's midfield, and while his defensive qualities were rarely tested, his pace makes him a much more natural ball-winner than Xhaka.
He popped up with a couple of key interceptions near the Arsenal area in the second half and, more notably, he showed he can close down a ball carrier much quicker than the lumbering Switzerland international.
Maitland-Niles may not be the natural holding midfielder Arsenal so badly needs, but neither is Xhaka. And the England youth international could be the better option going forward.
3. Ostersunds finally get a reality check
It seems the moment finally got to Ostersunds.
The small Swedish club have made a habit of exceeding expectations recently, winning the Swedish Cup last year and knocking out Galatasaray just to get into this competition, then advancing from a group that included Athletic Bilbao and Hertha Berlin. But they looked starstruck here in the opening 20 minutes and never found anything remotely resembling their usual game until they were already 2-0 down.
Keita looked particularly shaky, and had already spilled one shot by the time he failed to hold onto Iwobi's strike, allowing the ball to trickle across the goalmouth toward Monreal.
Ostersunds' English coach Graham Potter has won plenty of plaudits for his attractive style of football, but the hosts were sitting back in an unusually defensive 5-3-2 at the start, giving Arsenal an excess of respect and possession.
But the early deficit seemed to jolt them into life and they suddenly looked a threat going forward. Striker Saman Ghoddos had their first attempt on target in the 27th, but his header went straight at Ospina. However, he tested the goalkeeper properly minutes later with a stinging volley that was tipped over the bar.
They managed to get more of the ball in the second half, although mainly because Arsenal were content with protecting the result. A late consolation goal probably wouldn't have changed much, but Pettersson's low spot kick was saved by Ospina anyway.
All in all, the Swedish side certainly didn't embarrass themselves, and the club have done a fantastic job in staging the biggest game in their 22-year history. But they know they can play better than this, and will feel they missed a chance to put in a performance that matched the occasion.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.