Qarabag vs Arsenal – Five things we learned: Starlet Emile Smith Rowe and an Azerbaijani amphitheatre

Arsenal produced a lacklustre first-half performance against Qarabag in their Europa League group stage match but still scurry away from Azerbaijan with a comfortable clean sheet.  

English starlet Emile Smith Rowe started for the second time and produced a sterling display to justify the hysteria around him in the club’s academy while Bernd Leno too impressed in goal.

It was hardly the walkover of a fortnight ago though and the away side looked vulnerable in the first-half as Unai Emery experimented with a five at the back formation.

Nevertheless Arsenal reamin in a commanding position at the top of Group E with two wins from two. 

Five things we learned:

Emery still experimenting with formation

Emery has stuck near religiously to a 4-2-3-1 this season accommodating Ozil and Aubameyang on either wing but he took advantage of tonight’s opposition to experiment with a 5-3-2 which he surely hope would allow Arsenal to oppress their opponents with dictatorial possession. However, throughout the first half, Arsenal were overrun in the centre of midfield and were increasingly vulnerable to the counter-attack. In the first 45 minutes alone there were at least four clear cut opportunities that the home side should have capitalised on. It forced the Arsenal manager to rapidly regress to his tested set-up in the second-half with the introduction of Lucas Torreira in place of Nacho Monreal and, for now, it’s back to their one and only formula. 

Emile Smith Rowe has exceptional potential 

It’s easy to see why Smith Rowe is the most highly-touted prospect to come out of the Arsenal academy since Jack Wilshere and it’s also astute of the club to introduce him in understated fashion 5,000 miles from home. It’s clear to see where the comparisons to Kevin De Bruyne come from and they are apt if not premature. He was a commanding presence in an central attacking role and exhibited a keen spatial awareness that rarely ever saw him caught in possession. The 18-year-old also showed glimpses of the dynamic and direct runs which became fabled during his illustrious period in the youth side. His first goal for the club capping a sterling display.

Kolasinac’s future still fading at Arsenal

When Saed Kolasinac debuted for Arsenal against Chelsea in the Community Shield, he was a bulldozing left-back who blustered down the touchline with the spite of an Eastern blizzard. But over the course of that season the hail petered and injuries emerged until eventually the stone-faced Bosnian was sidelined altogether. Rumours spread that he had fallen out with Arsene Wenger and he also seemed to get noticeably bulkier. Tonight against lower-echelon opposition was Kolasinac’s opportunity to exhibit a slim lined gusto, but the storm never quite moved in. Always dangerous going forward but, for a twenty-minute spell in the first half, he was so sluggish tracking back that Qarabag’s players simple rushed past him like a relentless stream.

 Leno is primed to succeed

It’s easy to understand why Unai Emery has been so cautious introducing their £19 million goalkeeper who many presumed would have already displaced Petr Cech. With such scrutiny on goalkeeper’s ability to play off the floor one mishap would beckon a litany of scoff but surely the time has to come where the keeper must be trusted into the deep-end. The German made a number of great reactive saves in the first-half, was composed playing off the floor, and there was no reminiscence of the fateful days of ‘Flappy Fabianski’. What more can he do?

They can outsell the Emirates in Azerbaijan

The Emirates was a ghostly auditorium for Arsenal’s opening Europa League fixture against Vorskla Poltava a fortnight ago. Red seats highlighted the half-empty ground like traffic lights and many more appeared in the second half as those in the premium tier decided the red accompanying the complimentary cheese board was in fact preferable to the training-ground paced game. 

But that was anything but the case in Baku where there was scarcely a seat to be spotted by binocular in the 70,000 seat national stadium. Qarabag have only temporarily moved there due to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war but every time the hosts charged forwards, which Arsenal allowed them to do all too frequently, the fans erupted into a deafening cacophony.

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