It was never going to be a doddle for Arsenal in this Group E encounter with Qarabag. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Qarabag were going to make the job as difficult as possible and that turned out to be the case.
Brimming with purpose, intent and endeavour, the Azerbaijan outfit put Arsenal on the back foot and for large portions of the game and they had to soak up pressure like an industrial sponge. Emery has at least managed to instill some much needed resilience and it was required to repel the waves of attacks heading toward the Arsenal box.
This Arsenal side under Unai Emery, has found something that has been missing for years, the ability to get the necessary win without having to worry about pretty football. They can still perform beautiful one touch football but in the past, although pleasant on the eye, it offered little in the way of trophies and points.
Arsenal got off to a flying start with only 4 minutes on the clock when a headed ball from Monreal struck the oblivious Sokratis and went into the net to give the gunners the lead. The solid Greek defender looked a mixture of bewildered and grateful, opening his account for the North London club.
Qarabag merely dusted themselves down and started again. In these types of encounters a one goal advantage means very little and they approached the game as if they were on level terms.
Arsenal players celebrate the opening goal. Courtesy: Arsenal.com
It was a match that was to change at pivotal moments and at times, it went against the run of play. As was the case in the recent match against Watford, Arsenal had to throw bodies behind the ball and fire fighting for long periods, only to deliver a sucker punch.
Mahir Madatov and Filip Ozobic had chances but Leno performed like a scoarched cat, leaping on to anything that was lose and securing the ball at every opportunity whilst deputising for the hamstrung Petr Cech.
Arsenal preserved their lead until halftime but it was a slog at times, Qarabag had a handful of decent opportunities but were incredibly wasteful when it was time to pull the trigger.
Unai Emery will be acutely aware that to win this competition again, will require a defence that is more robust than it is at present. It occasionally resembles a collection of strangers at a restaurant, who at the end of the evening, are all looking to avoid paying the bill. A back three or back four seems to make no difference at all, so perhaps it’s the personnel available.
The second 45 saw the opposition push the envelope in search of an equaliser and it was extremely likely as they proved to be inventive and committed but Smith-Rowe powered in an Iwobi cross and Arsenal had the breathing space they needed.
The Arsenal youngster could have had a goal earlier but was unable to convert a Kolasinac cross. He wasn’t to be denied for long and along with Sokratis and Guendouzi, who appears comfortable on any stage, all three secured their first goals for the club. Smith-Rowe, May even be ready for a run in the premiership, such was his obvious talent and temperament.
He breezed forward looking for openings and his performance belied his young age. If the lad can keep his feet on the ground and continue to apply himself, Arsenal may have saved themselves a lot of money in future transfer windows and perhaps Gareth Southgate will need to make a phone call to the Smith-Rowe household.
Even at 2-0, Qarabag had enough to get back in the game but they were like elderly ladies in front of goal, scuffing and fluffing the available openings. Perhaps they’d been to the same finishing school as Fanny Welbucket (Danny Welbeck) and thought that the tide would turn eventually, based purely on the law of averages.
Unai Emery felt the need to bring on the big guns in the second half including Ozil, Torreira and Lacazette.
The Spanish head coach continues to use his substitutions to meet the changing circumstances and those changes may well have been the final twist of the knife. The class began to show which would eventually overwhelm Qarabag but they didn’t disgrace themselves.
Guendouzi put the cherry on top with a dazzling strike, which added insult to injury and he continues to look like an unearthed gem.
Iwobi is also worth mentioning, his endeavour and industry continues to shine but unfortunately Danny Welbeck had a stinker. Welbeck covered a lot of ground but was never really a threat or made anything happen.
Despite former Arsenal striker, Ian Wright’s insistence that he be given a new contract, he remains an enigma. If he were in a major film release, he would be way down the credits and in no more than a supporting role.