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Arsenal's Europa League campaign falls flat as old guard fail to impress

Regardless of what happens when Arsenal face BATE Borisov in the Europa League on Thursday night, the Gunners will end up as winners of Group H.

While no game can really be considered meaningless, it's one which means there's no pressure to achieve a result, and for some it provides Arsene Wenger with a chance to really experiment with his squad.

While the European campaign has been pretty mediocre fare for the most part, there has been some excitement at seeing the next generation of young Arsenal players being given chances in the first team. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson have been the most regular, being asked to eschew their natural game to do their defensive duties at wing-back, while the likes of Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah have also caught the eye.

However, it seems as if the Arsenal manager is focused more on keeping his fringe players sharp and match-fit than youth development as they get ready to face the Belarusian side at the Emirates.

Asked if he was set to make significant changes from the kind of team he played in the previous rounds at his press conference on Wednesday, Wenger said: "Not too much because I have many players available who need competition.

"We go next week into a week with three games, so some players need competition. We'll play an experienced team."

In some ways it's understandable, because if Arsenal suffer some injuries or suspensions, Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Rob Holding et al will be asked to deputise in the Premier League. It won't be the youngsters, no matter how promising they are or how much potential they have.

However, it's now up to those senior players to produce and to combat a feeling of ennui that has accompanied most of their Europa League performances this season. The last three games have produced just a single goal -- Giroud's acrobatic effort in the 85th minute of a turgid 1-0 victory over Red Star Belgrade -- and defeat away to Cologne in the last match, the Bundesliga's worst side this season, was a real disappointment.

It's a far cry from the opening two games when the German side's fans made the Emirates a cauldron of noise and atmosphere, and a trip to pastures new in Belarus made the Europa League feel like something different. There was obviously disappointment when Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League, but that was tempered somewhat by the novelty of a competition that wasn't just more of the same.

Arsenal are through to the Europa League round of 32 but it has been an underwhelming campaign so far.

And yet on a couple of levels it hasn't quite worked out as well as Wenger would have liked. The benefit of not playing his first team in midweek European games should have been seen when it came to domestic games.

Without the fatigue of playing and travel, those players should have been fresher for the Premier League, and yet Arsenal have lost five games this season. Compare that to last year when despite far less rotation they had, at this stage, only lost once in the league, and that was on the opening day.

The other supposed upside was that the Europa League would give chances to players who weren't playing often -- if at all -- in the league, to show their manager they deserved a chance. Giroud, Walcott, Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny, and Francis Coquelin have been bit-part performers outside of the European games, and playing well in those ties would at least give Wenger something to think about.

None of them have really done anything to force their way into the reckoning for league games, beyond the odd introduction from the bench. There certainly hasn't been anyone whose performances suggest they should be starting. So, while you can see the logic in the Frenchman sticking with his experienced players for Thursday night, adding a few of the young up and coming talents would have added a measure of excitement and given fans the chance to see something different.

The old reliables could click and put in a decent display, which would be welcome having lost 3-1 at the weekend to Manchester United, but it's hard not to think it might be just more of the same.

Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.


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