As anticipated, it was an extremely low turnout at the Emirates for the dead rubber match against Qarabag, and the atmosphere was a little surreal as a result. The general lack of excitement was summed up by Alexandre Lacazette’s subdued celebration at opening the scoring, even though it was a very decent finish indeed.
It was a surprise to see the number 9 in the starting line-up, as it was assumed Eddie Nketiah would be up front. The young striker started on the right side of attack, finally moving into the centre once Lacazette was subbed in the second half.
As expected, Laurent Koscielny also started the match, and played 72 minutes, which was very encouraging. He will surely be used at Southampton on Sunday. Mesut Ozil also had a run-out and given he had not appeared for a month, in terms of match fitness this was necessary. The other youngsters to start were Joe Willock and 17 year old Bukayo Saka. Although all put in decent enough displays, it was Saka that caught the eye most. Here was a player who had every motivation to put in a committed performance, as opposed to going through the motions as the more senior players inevitably did. With his forward forays, he gave the hardy souls that did turn up reason to get excited, and we wait to see if he breaks through to appear more often.
Qarabag were pretty poor opposition, astonishing to think they managed to deny Atletico Madrid four points in two matches last season. Emiliano Martinez was picked in goal ahead of Petr Cech, but had very little to do all evening. The visitors’ standout moment was probably the pitch invasion by a lone fan waving what I presume to be an Azerbaijan flag, who I assume was running in the direction of Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the Arsenal bench. The Armenian laughed it off, but who knows what would have happened if he’d got close enough to engage physically with the Gunners number 7? There were – understandably – so few travelling fans, the Arsenal stewards patrolling the visitors’ section were probably caught off guard.
What else is there to say about a nothingy kind of game? Nacho Monreal had some match time replacing Koscielny, and may figure on Sunday. Against pretty poor opposition, Mesut Ozil didn’t make hay while the sun shone (in fact the near freezing temperatures probably had something to do with a percentage of the non-attendees). A couple more youngsters came on from the bench. At one point, the Highbury Spy sitting next to me suggested we see how long it took for the referee’s temporary spray foam to disappear after a free kick. It was that kind of evening.
I will say this though – it was good to see Carl Jenkinson put in a committed and disciplined display. In spite of being out on the fringes, I actually think he has benefitted from working under Emery. He gets the role of what a wing back is supposed to do, and gives it his all.
For those that did bother to attend, there is a certain achievement in having been at matches like these. It does separate the diehards from the less committed supporter. Additionally, it chalked up another game on the unbeaten run. So job done, commitment fulfilled, some match fitness under the belt for certain players, and a chance to see some of the youths. What’s not to like?
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