UEFA Europa League 2018-19, Arsenal 1-0 Qarabag: 5 Talking Points

Lacazette fired the winner for Arsenal
Lacazette fired the winner for Arsenal
Shashwat Kumar

Arsenal coasted to a 1-0 victory over Qarabag at the Emirates in their final group game. The Gunners were already assured of top spot, yet kept their concentration to ensure a fifth straight clean sheet in the competition.

The home side dominated possession throughout the game and barely let the away team have any goal-scoring opportunities. Arsenal were rewarded for their domination in the 16th minute when Lacazette fired from a tight angle to give the Gunners the lead.

The goal eventually proved to be the difference in a match that lacked goalmouth action and attacking verve.

Here is a look at five talking points from the game:

5. A strange atmosphere at the Emirates

The fans endured a dull encounter
The fans endured a dull encounter

Arsenal came into the game with top spot sealed while Qarabag were not in the running for a knock-out berth. With not much riding on the game, the two sides played out a dull affair with only a handful of clear-cut chances through the ninety minutes.

Moreover, the game was played out in front of a half-empty Emirates stadium. It is hard to remember the last time the Emirates was so quiet and unoccupied. with probably last season’s home game against Manchester City coming closest to tonight’s odd atmosphere. Since Emery’s appointment in the summer, there has been a feel-good factor to all of the home games; something which certainly wasn’t the case during Wenger’s last season.

However, with the game not holding much significance, the majority of the Gooners decided to stay away. Coupled with the chilly conditions, the vacant seats contributed to the atmosphere resembling a reserve game.

The players, too, were in part responsible and didn’t do a lot on the pitch to lift those present.

Thus, a combination of these factors led to a rather serene Emirates on Thursday night.

4. Arsenal’s fringe players give a good account of themselves

Willock looked a part again
Willock looked a part again

The Gunners had done all the hard work in their group earlier, and hence could afford to relax in their last group outing. With first place assured, Emery decided to ring the changes and handed starts to several players on the periphery.

Mailtand-Niles and Jenkinson started in the full-back roles and were untroubled defensively. Offensively, though they provided a decent outlet, both would’ve wanted to come up with a better end-product.

In the midfield, Willock put in an accomplished performance alongside Elneny. The former bagged his first goal in the win against Vorskla and displayed immense poise in his second consecutive start in Europe.

However, the best performers for the Gunners were up front. Saka was marvelous, with Nketiah also strengthening his case for a more regular role in the first-team.

The Gunners having qualified with games to spare, Emery was accorded the chance to test out his younger crop and over the course of the last two games, one can safely say that the starlets have done their credentials no harm.

Arsenal have some bright prospects in their midst and it is now up to them to nurture the lot and extract every ounce of talent.

3. Arsenal’s returning stars enjoy a good evening’s work-out

Koscielny made his long-awaited return from injury
Koscielny made his long-awaited return from injury

Arsenal have had a wretched time with injuries in recent years with numerous key players missing vital phases of the season. Even this year, the injury curse seems to have hit the Gunners, with Welbeck and Holding being long-term absentees. However, all is not doom and gloom for the North London outfit as they were able to welcome the likes of Ozil, Koscielny and Monreal back into the fold.

Ozil hasn’t played for the Gunners since being dropped to the bench at Bournemouth. A back spasm ruled him out of crucial clashes against Spurs and Manchester United. Thus, with the games coming thick and fast, Emery would be delighted by how the German marked his return.

Ozil looked sharp against Qarabag and got himself an assist when he laid on the ball for Lacazette to rifle home. Additionally, he displayed a good first touch for the entirety of the game and controlled the tempo. The Gunners lacked a cutting edge against Huddersfield in the weekend, and hence Ozil’s return couldn’t have come at a better time.

However, the return to fitness of Koscielny and Monreal could just prove as pivotal, if not more. The former has been absent for the better part of six months after rupturing his Achilles tendon, and over that period, Arsenal have missed his defensive qualities.

Monreal, on the other hand, was absent for a much shorter period. Yet, his re-installation in the Gunners defence on Thursday night provides Arsenal with options at the back.

For the weekend, Mustafi and Sokratis are suspended. Thus, the prospect of Koscielny and Monreal starting together is a very realistic one indeed. And fortunately for the Gunners, the pair enjoyed a decent outing and came through unscathed.

2. Bukayo Saka sizzles on his first start for Arsenal

Saka sizzled on his first start for Arsenal
Saka sizzled on his first start for Arsenal

Despite having already talked about the Gunners’ fringe players expressing themselves on the pitch well, Saka’s performance warrants a closer look.

The teenager was thrust into the deep end and after a nervy start, showed the confidence and directness that he’s shown in reserve games.

On the left flank, Saka troubled the Qarabag defence continuously. Not afraid to take a defender on, the Englishman portrayed immense belief to demand the ball and make good use of it.

Saka’s biggest assets are his dribbling and burst of acceleration and both came to the fore in a scintillating display.

Though the Englishman looked a little raw on occasions, he could be pardoned due to his inexperience. Saka seems to possess all the attributes needed to be a success at the Emirates and he now has to start delivering such displays on a frequent basis.

While it may still be a little too premature to get excited about him breaking into the first-team, the ingredients for a successful recipe definitely seem to be present.

1. Arsenal win despite being in second gear

Arsenal won despite being in 2nd gear throughout
Arsenal won despite being in 2nd gear throughout

Qarabag arrived at the Emirates having made the net bulge only twice in the group stages. The side from Azerbaijan were the group’s lowest scorers and after their insipid performance at the Emirates, it didn’t take rocket science to figure out why.

With the away side not conjuring anything of note, the Gunners were able to cruise through the game without actually getting out of second gear. They upped the tempo every now and then yet played at a lethargic pace for the majority of the game.

Despite enjoying a lion’s share of the ball, they failed to create the numerous clear-cut chances synonymous with them. This made it more pronounced that the Gunners had to barely break a sweat to cross the finish line.

The Gunners might not enjoy many such nights in the competition though. The likes of Napoli and Inter Milan also find themselves in the Europa League, and hence it would certainly not be plain-sailing for Arsenal.

Last season, they fell at the penultimate hurdle and saw their hopes of returning to the Champions League evaporate with that. Yet, with the squad depth and the quality they’ve shown so far, one could hardly argue with the Gunners being touted as favorites to go all the way.

And with a certain Unai Emery at the helm, they have a manager who knows a thing or two about winning the Europa League.

Edited by Madhumathi Raman


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