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Football Whispers

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Football Whispers
 By Tom Adams

Has Wilshere convinced Wenger he should start against Southampton?

Arsenal could barely have wished for an easier Europa League campaign. Qualified with two games to spare, top of the group with one in hand and finishing things off in considerable style thanks to a 6-0 drubbing of BATE Borisov on Thursday night. All conducted with the minimum of fuss and without recourse to Arsene Wenger's biggest names.

The only problem is that it may have been too easy.

As an exercise in giving first-team football to young talents and fringe players, it has been an unparalleled success. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have boosted their goal tallies, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is getting exposure and invaluable experience and Jack Wilshere has charted his return to form with a series of impressive performances, culminating in arguably his best of the season vs. BATE.

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A first goal in two-and-a-half years certainly helped and Wenger was delighted with his performance, speaking of "the most mature Wilshere I have seen, in the game and outside the game."

The manager then added, somewhat intriguingly, "You will see more of him... He will get games, he will get the opportunity to show that Jack Wilshere is back."

But was the man-of-the-match performance enough of a prod for Wenger? The opposition were an abject mess, after all. It's the nature of the Europa League, but the standard of football in Arsenal's group was a few levels below the Premier League. It is hard to make a truly convincing case.

Granit Xhaka has been struggling but, ahead of the weekend trip to Southampton, is dominating BATE the kind of supporting evidence that will be enough for Wilshere to unseat him, or get a spot further forward?

Wenger switched to a back four on Thursday, having ditched 3-4-3 after Shkodran Mustafi's injury in the first half of the 3-1 loss to Manchester United. If the 4-2-3-1 remains intact it allows for an extra body in the final third and that could be Wilshere, possibly as a No. 10 with Mesut Ozil pushing wide. But it would be a big move to abandon a now well-established formation.

Arsene Wenger could make personnel and formation changes after seeing so many players in good form against BATE.

Ultimately, you suspect Wenger will stick to what he knows. After all, the identity of Arsenal's other best player against BATE suggests that Europa League excellence may not translate to Premier League competence.

Theo Walcott also impressed. He scored, claimed an assist, won a penalty, forced an own goal and had a shot cleared off the line. It represented more impact than he has made all season in the league. Unfortunately he is a doubt against his former side with a "little tight calf" but, even if Wenger sounded optimistic he would be available, would he be in genuine contention? You suspect not.

Still, with Mustafi the only first-team option sidelined -- Santi Cazorla cannot figure in any realistic plans at the moment -- Arsenal are in rude health. The benefits of having an entire second team for midweek cup commitments are clear: Wenger's men are about as fresh as you can be at this stage of the year.

Trips to Southampton have been volatile affairs of late. Last season, Arsenal won 2-0 in the Premier League in May and 5-0 in the FA Cup in January. That saw the pendulum swing back after a particularly devastating 4-0 defeat on Boxing Day 2015, which exposed Arsenal as title lightweights. Indeed, there have not been fewer than two goals in this fixture since 2003.

Southampton's season has been a bit of a struggle with only four wins in 15 matches but they have improved recently: A 4-1 home win over Everton on Nov. 26 was followed by a defeat at Manchester City that was only confirmed in injury time. Last weekend, they got a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth.

Even allowing for that mini-resurgence, though, Sunday's game has the look of a fixture in which you might try something different. Whether that be in terms of rewarding personnel for improved form or returning to a former tactical orthodoxy.

The trouble is, even battering BATE might not be enough to convince Wenger that he needs to change Plan A.

Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport


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