In their 8th straight win in all competitions, the Gunners routed Qarabag 3-0 on Thursday to stay top in Group E of the Europa League, level on points with Sporting Lisbon. Emery rested several regular starters by making 9 changes to the side that defeated Watford last weekend with only Monreal and Holding retaining their starting spots. The Spanish manager still had Lacazette, Ozil, Torreira, Xhaka, Bellerin and Mustafi available on the bench if things didn’t go well. On the other hand, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang missed the trip to Azerbaijan. Mkhitaryan did not travel for political reasons while Aubameyang is recovering from illness and Ramsey’s wife is expecting a baby.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The main surprise in Thursday’s game was the 3-4-3 formation used by Emery in the first half. Sokratis played alongside Holding and Monreal in a back three while Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner got up and down the flanks like wingbacks. Emery replaced Monreal with Torreira at halftime to switch to a back four. In the 4-3-3 system, Torreira played behind Elneny and Guendouzi in midfield. Then, Emery shifted to a casual 4-4-2 formation by replacing Smith-Rowe with Ozil in the 65th. Elneny and Iwobi patrolled the flanks while Ozil and Welbeck stayed up front.
To a certain extent, it felt like those pre-season games where the manager wants to make tactical experiments. That’s a welcome change from the 4-2-3-1 system that Emery has been using since the start of the season. Nowadays, managers need to be flexible tactically. First, because a formation may prevent some players from expressing their potential. And second, because you can’t afford to be too predictable. Everything is analyzed in the modern game, so you must always find ways to create problems for your opponents.
- Smith-Rowe is taking his chances
What a difference a year can make. Last season, Wenger gave some playing time to Nelson, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock in the Europa League. While Nelson has been loaned out to Hoffenheim, Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock haven’t played yet in the Europa League under Emery. In fact, Emery has used only one academy player in that competition: Smith-Rowe.
Smith-Rowe reminds me of a young Raul because of his flair for finding good positions in the final third. Obviously, Smith-Rowe is not the finished product yet. He needs to work on his composure in the final third and his reading of the game. For instance, Smith-Rowe killed the momentum of a counterattack in the 36th minute by making an inside run whereas an outside run would have given Iwobi a passing option and helped stretch play.
Still, his performance against Qarabag was quite impressive for a teenager. Smith-Rowe found the side-netting with a sliding effort in the 18th. He then met a cross from Kolasinac for a volley that bounced wide in the 38th. His efforts were finally rewarded in the 53rd when he took a pass from Iwobi to slip the ball through Vagner’s legs for a 2-0 lead. That was Smith-Rowe’s first goal in a competitive game with the first team. Besides that goal, Smith-Rowe also made 1 key pass and had just 2 turnovers.
- Kolasinac lacks defensive awareness
Somehow, Kolasinac embodies the failures of the scouting department under Wenger. He loves charging forward like a winger but he simply doesn’t have the mindset of a defender. Kolasinac led the Gunners with 3 key passes in Baku but his defensive lapses clearly outweighed his offensive contribution. He failed to stop dangerous crosses from Medvedev in the 10th and 39th. Then Medvedev in the 44th and Madatov in the 52nd made runs in behind Kolasinac. The cherry on the cake was Madatov’s nutmeg on Kolasinac just before testing Leno with a low strike in the 27th.
- Guendouzi is still a raw player
Some Arsenal fans have high expectations for Guendouzi. There’s no doubt that Guendouzi has strong potential but he’s still a raw player. I remember Denilson was also highly touted after a few games at the club before his career went downhill by 2011. The optimists will only remember Guendouzi’s first Arsenal goal in the 79th. Guendouzi took a pass from Lacazette and created space to bury a diagonal drive into the bottom corner for the final goal. The pessimists will only remember Guendouzi’s 4 turnovers, the most for any Arsenal player according to whoscored.com. Guendouzi has average pace and limited dribbling skills. Yet, he ran into traffic in the 8th and the 34th and lost possession on both occasions. Guendouzi was also robbed on the edge of the Arsenal box by Zoubir in the 14th and Michel in the 24th.
- Elneny showed his limitations
The Egypt midfielder led all players with a passing accuracy of 98%, according to whoscored.com. His main contribution was to replace Xhaka and Ozil for corner kicks. Monreal met a corner from Elneny in the fourth minute for a header that deflected off Sokratis to beat Vagner. Welbeck also connected with another corner from Elneny in the 21st but his header sailed wide. From open play, Elneny struggled to have an impact at both ends of the pitch. He completely missed his cross in the 25th when 4 Gunners were waiting inside the area. And his final ball for Kolasinac in the 57th rolled out of play. Defensively, Elneny won no tackle and his lost duel in the 27th led to a scoring chance for Madatov.
- Iwobi’s péché mignon
Much has been said about Iwobi’s improvement under Emery. The stats don’t lie. Iwobi already has 1 goal and 4 assists from 7 games in all competitions this season. By contrast, he had just 3 goals and 7 assists from 39 games last season, according to transfermarkt.com. However, Iwobi shouldn’t relax in his efforts. He can still have that tendency to take on players when he shouldn’t. The Nigeria international tried to dribble past 3 Qarabag players in the 30th and lost possession. Then he attempted to dribble out of trouble on the edge of the Arsenal area and was dispossessed by Michel in the 55th.