Arsenal defeated Qarabag 3-0 in the second match of the 18/19 Europa League group stage, with Sokratis Papastathopolous, Emile Smith-Rowe and Matteo Guendouzi providing the goals in Azerbaijan and Bernd Leno keeping a clean sheet.
While big changes were expected within the team due to absentees, injuries and competition prioritization, it was perhaps a little bit surprising quite how wholesale the changes were – only two players that began the Watford game started in Baku.
Those were defenders Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, with the latter being awarded the captaincy. They were joined by Sokratis, with the Grecian centre-back returning from the knock he picked up against Everton.
Behind them was Leno, who came on for Petr Cech against Watford after the Cech stopper picked up a hamstring knock. With appearances in the league, the cup and Europe now under his belt with Arsenal, Leno was no doubt hoping to impress during his time in the spotlight.
It was also positive to see Sead Kolasinac back on the field for his first Arsenal match since the final game of last season, with the Bosnian international featuring from the start. On the other flank was Stephan Lichtsteiner.
In front of them were Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi, with Emile Smith-Rowe, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck in the advanced positions.
Arsenal absolutely barrelled out the gates. Lining up with 3 at the back, it was the returning Kolasinac that was the first to make things happen, with the making a fine run up the flank and crossing to find Welbeck, who had his shot smothered.
Almost immediately afterwards, Arsenal were a goal to the good – an Elneny corner was met by the captain Monreal, with his header making its way to Sokratis, who then scored his first goal in an Arsenal shirt. Less than 5 minutes on the clock, 1-0.
Monreal came up once again with an attacking contribution – since the start of last season, he’s been involved with 11 goals (7 scored, 4 assists).
It was nearly two on 18 minutes when Smith-Rowe began a flowing move, which was then excellently taken on by Kolasinac, with the defender curling in a near-perfect cross towards the young Englishman, who came close to converting.
After nearly a half an hour, the home side got there first real taste of a chance, and Leno did well to stop it. Madatov managed to evade the defence enough to fire a low-shot towards the goal, but the German got down well and got a hand to it.
Before the end of the half, leno was called upon twice more as Qarabag grew into the game. Croatian attacking midfielder Ozobic’s volley on 39 minutes could easily have made it 1-1, so the new man between the sticks did well to get enough behind it to prevent that from being the case.
The new formation looked sometimes good, sometimes bad in the opening half, with the wing-backs getting up the field and Holding, Sokratis and Monreal holding firm. It may or may not be a solution over the long term, but it’s good to see experimentation, and there’s no better place to do it than the Europa League group stages.
Interestingly though, Monreal was replaced by Lucas Torreira for the second half and the formation reverted to 4 at the back. Whether it was a knock or a tactical decision is unclear at this time.
Madatov, who had been Qarabag’s most threatening player in the first half, started the second half by finding the back of the net…. Luckily for the Gunners, it was disallowed.
Guendouxzi gave the ball away at the half-way line, and the current Azerbaijani champions sprang forward, with Emeghara treading the ball through to Madatov, who slipped the ball under Leno – put being just past the last defender when the initial pass was made, meaning the goal was ruled out for offside.
It was a poor start to the second half, and it looked like it was going to get worse when Madatov got the best of Kolasinac, but a poor first touch let him down when it came to finding the net.
With 52 minutes on the clock, the game was sealed; Smith-Rowe netting his first senior goal for Arsenal in a competitive match.
A fine goal it was, too. Iwobi drew in the Qarabag defence, allowing Smith-Rwe to gain some breathing space, and when he found the ball at his feet, he made a smart finish past Vagner in the Qarabag goal at his far post. 2-0.
Despite the poor start to the half, Arsenal were in-front, and the home side were desperate to put themselves back into contention, and looked far more threatening than they had in the frist half.
The goal scorer – who at only 18 years and 67 days is the youngest player to score for Arsenal since Alex Oxlade Chamberlain in 2011 – made way for Mesut Ozil. Shortly after, Alexandre Lacazette entered the fray to add some additional firepower up-front.
Guendouzi looked a little bit shaky in midfield at times, and was dispossessed a number of times, including the aforementioned offside goal and another break just prior to the 80th minute…
… but immediately after that, the French midfielder found his name on the scoresheet, making up for any ills!
This time he was on the other end of the counter attack, after the attacking trio of Welbeck, Lacazette and Ozil combined to set the young midfielder up. He still had a bit to do, side-stepping a defender before placing an effort into the bottom corner and making it 3-0.
This third goal deflated the home side, but the gunners pushed on. In the final minutes of the game, Welbeck had two chances, but neither came off. Nonetheless, 3 goals away from home and a clean sheet in Europe is never something to be looked down upon – full-time, 3-0.
2 Europa League matches, 6 points – and now the Gunners begin their 2,500-mile trip back to North London. Smith-Rowe and Kolasinac were big positives from the match, and it
In the other game in the group, Vorskla made their way into an early lead against Sporting Lisbon at home, but the Portuguese team persevered, and scored two very late goals to win the match 2-1 and keep the group competitive ahead of two consecutive games against the Gunners.
Next up for Arsenal is an away league match much, much closer to home – a trip to Craven Cottage to play Fulham. For now though, Emery and his side can return to the Emirates with their heads held high, and the winning streak moved up to 8 wins in a row.