Arsenal and Unai Emery keep on course for Europa League success
Mesut Özil plays 90 minutes as Gunners secure spot in last 16
Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates with Mattéo Guendouzi after his cross was deflected into the net by Bate Borisov defender Zakhar Volkov during the Europa League round of 32, second leg at the Emirates. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP
Arsenal 3 Bate Borisov 0 (Arsenal win 3-1 on agg)
One of the reasons for hiring Unai Emery was his convincing record as a Europa League specialist. The man from the Basque country has won this competition three times in succession with Sevilla, and given Arsenal find themselves in this company at the moment (however desperate they are to get out of it) there is a certain logic in choosing a coach who knows how to get over this particular line.
This tie with Bate Borisov might not live long in the memory, and this team could still do with a click or three to find the required momentum, some sort of injection of belief, to think any further than one round at a time. But a comfortable night’s work in which Petr Cech only had one save to make gives Emery something to work with.
Work he continues to do, and more of it is needed to create a team that feels like it has some genuine forward momentum. Mesut Özil was back in the side as finally Arsenal had a match deemed straightforward enough for Emery to recall their deluxe enigma. The playmaker with the gossamer touch and light work ethic has started only one game since St Stephen’s Day, which is not a scenario that serves either player or club well. It was telling that for all the sideshow that splutters over social media and beyond on this particular subject, Özil played 90 minutes without it being much of a drama.
The German ended up with the captain’s armband after the captain, Laurent Koscielny, went off. He showed flashes of imagination, but whether it is enough to convince his manager to return him to more robustly competitive Premier League games remains to be seen.
That’s the weird Arsenal conundrum right there: a team that lack vision and creativity are hamstrung by a reluctance to pick the player who embodies most of it. But even with Özil this was more of a functional performance than an uplifting one. The scoreline came courtesy of a Borisov own goal and two corners finished off by Arsenal centre halves. Still, whatever gets you through the night.
Emery was adamant at the end of a sobering evening in Borisov that his team would certainly turn the tie around in the second leg at the Emirates. Their opponents, who won the game in Belarus last week 1-0 and then spent the week warm-weather training in Colchester, were as prepared as they could ever be.
But Emery’s confidence looked reasonable as Arsenal enthusiastically dominated the first three minutes and took the lead in the fourth. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang skipped away down the right channel and hooked in a cross that should not have been significantly troublesome to a line of Bate defenders. One of them, the unfortunate Zakhar Volkov, jutted out a leg and turned the ball past his own goalkeeper.
The Belarusian club responded vigorously, forcing two chances in quick succession. Maksim Skavysh whipped a shot against the side-netting and Stanislav Dragun’s poke was swept off the line by Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Then the traffic turned the other way. Now level on aggregate, Arsenal probed in search of more. With Alexandre Lacazette suspended the onus was on Aubameyang to lead the line with the supporting cast in theory pushing up to help. The trio of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Özil and Alex Iwobi roamed around, but the overall pattern of attacking play missed the cohesion and precision to turn the screw for a half hour that summed up the kind of drifting, bland football Arsenal cannot seem to shake themselves out of these days.
Mkhitaryan nodded a chance over the bar. Granit Xhaka’s flyer was punched away. Aubameyang scooped a chance on to the roof of the net. Özil’s volley dipped over the bar.
The breakthrough came in the build-up to half-time from a set-piece as Xhaka’s corner was met by Shkodran Mustafi’s thumping header. Over on the touchline Emery shook his fists and yelled with relief.
After the break Arsenal searched for more and Mattéo Guendouzi, perhaps Arsenal’s most enterprising performer, curled a shot from distance. Özil broke with purpose and set up Iowbi, whose shot was parried.
Emery had to make a switch in the 55th minute when Koscielny went off nursing a calf injury – any strain is a concern for a player who has been out for so long. The defensive replacement, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, made an immediate impact by glancing in Arsenal’s third goal of the evening.
The crowd drifted away and Arsenal await the draw for the last 16 on Friday with Emery’s desire for more in this competition, however it comes, burning on. – Guardian