Sokratis Papastathopoulos strikes early as Arsenal pass Qarabag test with ease
Qarabag on a Thursday night might not have been the kind of trip players would be queueing up to take part in. Arsène Wenger was in the habit of leaving his first XI at home for Europa League group games, allowing them to put their feet up before a Premier League assignment, but Unai Emery sees each match – no matter where or against whom – as a stepping stone towards improvement.
This latest win was notable for the fact three players – Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Emile Smith Rowe and Mattéo Guendouzi – scored a first goal for Arsenal to savour on the 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, a first senior goal for two teenagers in Baku – what’s not to like about Arsenal’s fresh start under Emery? Well, here is the rub: for all the positives there is still something inescapably incoherent about the way they are playing. They get going in fits and starts, and defensively remain unconvincing enough to routinely give their opponents a bunch of clear chances every match. Qarabag were not short of opportunities.
Arsenal may be a bit of a riddle, with problems that need ironing out, as was made plain by the fact Emery started with a back three and then switched to a four as he continued to try to settle on a strategy to make the team more balanced. But during this period of change and getting used to things and having a stab at different combinations, Arsenal have hit on a knack for winning.
They enjoyed a comfortable start, taking a fourth-minute lead when 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 in Arsenal colours.
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 the back three were not an instant fix as Qarabag had their share of first‑half chances.
Innocent Emeghara appealed for a penalty, gesticulating furiously by tugging at his shirt to suggest some guilt on the part of Rob Holding. Then as the first half developed Qarabag gained the confidence to run at Arsenal with 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 after 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 could ease the pressure? Step forward a product 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 18-year-old to score. Then, with 11 minutes to go, Guendouzi showed clever feet to find the room to shoot across the goalkeeper for his first goal.
The choice to bring such a strong substitute’s bench ensured the win, as Qarabag ran out of legs once Mesut Özil, Alexandre Lacazette and Lucas Torreira came on.
Now to pick it up again, after a long return journey and a brief recovery, for the Sunday noon kick‑off at Fulham.