Enigmatic Arsenal make it eight straight wins but issues remain
Unai Emery changes from back three to back four at half-time in Azerbaijan
Emile Smith-Rowe of Arsenal scores his team’s second goal during the Europa League Group E match against Qarabag in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photograph: Francois Nel/Getty Images
Qarabag 0 Arsenal 3
Qarabag on a Thursday night might not have been the kind of trip that players would be queueing up to take part in.
Last season Arsène Wenger was in the habit of leaving his entire first XI at home for Europa League group games to conserve energy for Premier League assignments. But Unai Emery sees each game – no matter where or against whom – as a stepping stone towards the improvement he craves.
This latest win was notable for the fact three different players – Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Emile Smith Rowe and Mattéo Guendouzi – collected a first goal for Arsenal to think about on the long journey home from Azerbaijan.
Eight consecutive wins, a steady start in the Europa League, a fraction outside the Premier League top four on goal difference, a new goalkeeper in Bernd Leno who looks full of smart saves, first senior goals for two different teenagers in Baku: what’s not to like about Arsenal’s fresh start under Emery at the moment?
Well, here’s the bizarre rub. For all the positives, and there are plenty, there is still something inescapably incoherent about the way they are playing. They get going in fits and starts, but defensively they remain unconvincing enough to routinely gift their opposition a bunch of clear chances every match. Qarabag were not short of opportunities.
Arsenal may be a bit of a riddle, with issues that still need ironing out, as was made plain by the fact Emery started with a back three and then switched to a four as he continues to try to settle on a strategy to make them more balanced. But during this period of change, getting used to things and having a stab at different combinations, they have hit upon a knack for winning.
They enjoyed a comfortable start. Arsenal took a fourth-minute lead as Guendouzi floated in a corner for Nacho Monreal to head goalwards. The ball skimmed off Sokratis, who gladly if slightly inadvertently snaffled his first goal for the club.
There might have been more as Arsenal enjoyed space down the left side, with Alex Iwobi and Smith Rowe linking up well. At the other end, however, the back three was not an instant fix as Qarabag had their share of first-half chances. Arsenal are in the habit of allowing their opponents to generate plenty of chances, and the hosts were able to find vulnerabilities to exploit.
Innocent Emeghara appealed for a penalty, gesticulating furiously by tugging at his shirt to suggest some guilt on the part of Rob Holding. But as the first half developed they gained the confidence to run at Arsenal in numbers. Mahir Madatov danced into the box to test Leno. The German made an excellent reflex save to beat away Filip Ozobic’s fierce shot before half-time.
Emery reverted to a back four at the break, but that did not ease the defensive lapses and Qarabag found the net only for the celebrations to be curtailed by an offside flag. Who to look to to ease this defensive pressure? Step forward two players from the Arsenal Academy.
The front players seized their opportunity, and it was a special moment for Smith Rowe to clip home his first senior goal for his boyhood club. Danny Welbeck won possession and the purposeful Iwobi moved play on expertly, delaying his pass to make it as easy as possible for the teenager to score. Then, with 11 minutes to go Guendouzi showed clever feet to find the room to score his first goal across the keeper.
The choice to bring such a strong substitute’s bench ensured the win, and Qarabag ran out of legs once the likes of Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette and Lucas Torreira came on. Now to pick it up again, after a long journey and brief recovery, for the midday kick-off on Sunday at Fulham. – Guardian