Opinion: Does Arsene Wenger know his strongest team?

Arsenal's match-day one draw away to French champions PSG was certainly a good point for the Gunners but the team selection and subsequent performance begs the question: does Wenger know what his best XI is?

Opinion: Does Arsene Wenger know his strongest team?
Opinion: Does Arsene Wenger know his strongest team?

Tuesday night saw the side that finished second last season in England's top flight come up against the most dominant team in France since the Juninho-led Lyon in the mid-2000's in the form of Unai Emery’s PSGArsenal left Paris – the site of their greatest ever Champions League disappointment – a 2-1 final loss in 2006 to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, with a commendable and valuable point.

Whilst the result was something fans can take solace in, the performance was poor with the North London outfit regularly being exposed by PSG; if Edinson Cavani had the same deadliness in front of goal like his Uruguayan teammate and Barca superstar Luis Suárez, then Arsenal would have been on the receiving end of a hiding.

Arsene Wenger’s selection before Tuesday's match raised eyebrows. In what is most definitely the Gunners’ trickiest group stage match on paper, the veteran Frenchman decided to play his second goalkeeper, start Alexis Sánchez up-front and bench summer signings Granit Xhaka and Lucas Pérez whilst starting fellow new arrival, German defender Shkodran Mustafi.

As the game wore on, it was the aforementioned David Ospina and Sánchez who would have the defining impacts for Arsenal; the Columbian goalkeeper produced a stellar performance, making save after save from his South American counterpart Cavani whilst it was Sánchez who would score the equaliser. A night in Europe defined by South American stars.

Who to pick in goal

It is his number one that provides the first debate for Wenger and his starting squad selection. Following Tuesday’s match, Wenger hailed Ospina as “world class”, meaning he believes he has two top class goalkeepers contesting for a spot, if not the number one jersey which still belongs to Wojciech Szczęsny on loan in Rome.

But there was a reason why Petr Čech lost his starting place at Chelsea to Belgian shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois. Not only did manager José Mourinho want Courtois to believe he had a future at the club and therefore get him to sign a five-year deal, but there were murmurings that Čech was on the decline.

This may all seem somewhat anecdotal now after Čech’s debut season with the Gunners which resulted in him winning the Premier League Golden Glove, if not gaining his team the extra “15 points a season” that John Terry believed he would secure Arsenal.

However, there can be no doubt that Čech is no longer the keeper he once was, the aerially-dominant giant who seldom made a mistake. Too often has Čech been beaten at his near-post from long range shots and if Ospina carries on with performances like the one he produced in the Parc des Princes, then the Czech Republic man might find himself warming the bench of another Premier League side.

Heart of defence

Wenger strengthened his depth in the centre of defence with two summer signings: Rob Holding from Championship relegated Bolton for a fee of around £2 million, and Shkodran Mustafi, a World Cup winner in 2014 from Valencia in a deal worth over £30 million. Whilst one spot in the centre of the defence is locked down by the imperious Laurent Koscielny, it is the man that partners him where the questions arise.

Currently, both Gabriel and club captain Per Mertesacker are injured but, upon their return, who does Wenger pick and trust to partner Koscielny? Somewhat perversely, it may appear that being handed the captaincy may have been the kiss of death on Mertesacker’s Arsenal career, following the same fate that befell Mikel Arteta, now Pep Guaridola’s right-hand man at Manchester City.

In the Koscielny – Mustafi partnership, Arsenal have two players that are too similar to one another rather than actually complimenting each other and covering up for one each other’s deficiencies. Both are progressive, aggressive, ball-playing defenders who want to play on the front foot rather than adopt a more passive approach. On the other hand, Koscielny and Mertesacker are your almost typical partnership; a slower, less mobile, tall and aerially proficient defender next to an agile, aggressive, shorter speedster.

The best Premier League central defensive partnerships tend to apply this balance: think Terry – Carvalho, Ferdinand – Vidic and the invincible Toure – Campbell. It will certainly be interesting to see if Wenger reverts back to the partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny once the German recovers from injury or whether Mustafi will cement his place. Only two things are certain: one, Mustafi will have to do better than his performance on Tuesday, which L’Equipe gave him a 2/10 for, and two, that Arsenal’s centre of defence will feature a Frenchman partnering a German.

Defensive flanks

The full back positions provide very little contention for Wenger. The Spanish duo of Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin have made those positions their own. The ever-reliable and consistent Monreal is probably one of the first names on the team sheet, evaporating any chance of Kieran Gibbs reigniting his Arsenal career.

Bellerin might be a bit more suspect defensively, and certainly a lot less consistent, but his recovery pace and athleticism make him incredibly useful when covering his centre backs and bombing forward. His age also means that at his current progression, he should have a bright future for the Gunners… that is if Barcelona don’t bring him back to the Nou Camp a la Cesc Fabregas.

Central midfield conundrum

In the centre of the park, Wenger strengthened in the summer with the acquisition of Swiss international Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for a healthy £34 million. A classy yet robust player, Xhaka offers steel and silk in the middle of midfield with his capacity to produce a bone-crunching tackle and then sweep the ball with a 70-yard diagonal to an on running wide-man. However, Xhaka is rather immobile and this presents a dilemma for Wenger. Xhaka was seemingly bought to replace Santi Cazorla, someone who also lacks mobility, rather than partner him.

With Jack Wilshere shipped out on loan to Bournemouth, this leaves Wenger with four players who can play in the centre of midfield: Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Xhaka and Cazorla. Ramsey and Coquelin lack the technical ability the other two offer but have the midfield running instead. A deep-lying playmaker is necessary in the side and so is somebody to do the legwork but what combination does Wenger prefer?

When Ramsey returns to full fitness, Wenger may attempt to rekindle the Ramsey – Arteta pivot that worked to such great effect in 2013/2014 where the Welshman scored the most goals in one season in his career with Xhaka in place of Arteta although Cazorla's form may mean the manager will be forced to continue playing the diminutive Spaniard.

Secured spots

When it comes to places in the team that are secure, it seems Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez will always have a place in the starting line-up but it is only the German maestro who has the security of knowing where Wenger will play him. The 'number ten' position is Özil's and will probably forever be his as long as he is at the club but Sánchez suffers from his own success and versatility which prevents Wenger from playing him in just one position.

The Chilean’s adaptability, work ethic and overall ability means he can play as the lone-striker, a second-striker and on either wing but with varying levels of effectiveness.

As lone-striker, the five-foot-seven Chilean can be overpowered by two centre-backs, as PSG highlighted with the Brazilian combination of Marquinhos and Thiago Silva. Sánchez certainly looked much better, and indeed more comfortable, once he reverted to the left-wing with the more physical Olivier Giroud occupying the two defenders.

However, on the left, Sánchez sometimes falls into his own trap of wanting to come onto his stronger foot which can make him predictable; on the right, like in his Barcelona days, the fact he can go down the line or infield makes him far more of a harder puzzle for defenders to solve.

Other winger

If it is presumed that Özil has the 'number ten' position and Sánchez has one of the wing positions, who does Wenger believe best fits the other wing? Does he play the young and inconsistent yet potentially brilliant Alex IwobiTheo Walcott, or the enigma that is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to shine like a firecracker in pre-season only to go out like a damp squib by the time the important football has begun?

Maybe Wenger will deploy Pérez, a summer signing for just under £20 million from Deportivo de La Coruña on the wing, a position the now-striker has played at previous clubs, especially at his time in Greece with PAOK.

Starting striker

If not on the wing then Pérez will be unleashed on Premier League defences from the centre forward position to see if he can have the same impact he did in Spain for the Branquiazuis. But in Pérez and Giroud (and the injured Danny Welbeck), Wenger has very different specialist strikers.

Giroud’s size and ability in the air make him useful against deep defences or teams trying to protect a lead or point where Arsenal may just need to put the ball in the box and let Giroud battle for it, as evidenced in the Gunners’ 2-1 victory against Southampton, where Giroud won the penalty that Cazorla converted.

Pérez is more in the mould of a Liverpool-era Suarez, or more currently Roberto Firmino – a forward player who occupies the furthest forward position on the pitch, contributes in build-up play and will run the channels to stretch defences because he has no issues isolating a defender one-on-one.

How Wenger utilises his strikers and the amount of goals they get will ultimately be the deciding factor on whether Arsenal reclaim any lost ground on the title race and improve on last season's position of 2nd in the 2015-2016 season. Maintaining a settled eleven is key for title-success and Wenger needs to settle on what his best side is soon as to not fall further behind.