For the first time in my life, I can safely say I was looking forward to seeing us play a fellow European titan after yet another weekend headache and all of the baggage and inevitable doomsayings that came with it. After seeing the starting lineup, I’d even go as far as saying that I was excited. The fact I’ve said that about a Europa League game may just be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse – and another damning sign of how far our expectations have fallen – but it was genuinely great to watch.
The biggest surprise was seeing Ainsley given a chance in central midfield, for only the 6th time in his Arsenal career and while that option has been bayed for some time – including by Ainsley himself – I still find it curious why so many managers have been reluctant to give him a run of games there. On paper, he always struck me as a naturalised suitor for the position; athletic, calm and capable on the ball and savvy enough at both ends to make it viable. It’s even more curious given the chances he’s been given this season and while I still don’t understand how he didn’t even make the squad against Wolves, there was a clear intent to impress when his demands were met last night. It was also an advert for first team opportunities ahead of the North London derby and one Alex Lacazette does have a penchant for scoring against the noisy neighbours, so his inclusion behind Eddie was another development I didn’t see coming.
I’m not suggesting this unpredictable lineup was the reason why Wien were especially horrendous but it probably didn’t help their case.
Now I’ve watched Lacazette closely this season and even after he grabbed a few goals at the start, I had my concerns because they weren’t exactly “clean” and he’s missed more than his fair share since. Where that strike has come from is beyond me, but it was reminiscent of the Player of the Year Lacazette that now seems like a distance memory. I thought it took a deflection at first but the keeper was just well and truly wrongfooted from the swerve – it reminded me of Henry’s strike against United in 2004 which had a similar effect on Roy Carroll. I know Lacazette has that in his locker, like the screamer against Spurs last season but it’s not like we’ve seen that on the regular. I don’t know if he’ll start on Sunday, but given that finish and his involvements throughout the night, he’s made a strong case for himself.
The same can just as easily be said for Ainsley and Reiss Nelson, who didn’t take long to appreciate the gulf in quality between Arsenal and Wien and took full advantage. With 5 chances created by Nelson in the first half alone, it was in stark contrast to our domestic limitations and if not for some wayward finishing, the game would’ve been truly out of sight by half time. The other Europa League games haven’t exactly been a struggle but it was nice to see the team playing with some real Wenger-esque pizazz and eagerness to put a team to the sword. While some of Nelson’s dead-ball situations left much to be desired, the rest of his performance was virtually faultless and we finally scored from a near-post corner thanks to him and Pablo Marí’s glancing header. Who needs that poxy, turncoat Frenchman?
Ainsley’s situation is decidedly more tricky to breakdown; despite showing promise as a full-back, the man himself clearly still feels shoehorned into the position and it’s perfectly acceptable if his aspirations are misaligned with Arteta and the club’s. On this occasion, he didn’t disappoint and I enjoyed seeing what he can do in a less constrained role, while the prospect of an apprenticeship under a player of Partey’s calibre obviously provides a huge opportunity to really ground himself in the position. The question that remains is if he can do that job at that level. There’s a lot to like about what he has already, from the obscene confidence and cool head, to the slinking runs and athleticism – the last hurdle is ironing his problems in the final third because there’s no room to breathe in the Premier League. His position is even more unclear when you consider the to-ing and fro-ing, with one foot already seemingly out of the door to Wolves in the summer before the club pulled a U-turn. Why that was, I don’t know but I thought at the time that £20m was too cheap for a player like Ainsley and I think the jury is still out on what type of player he can become. Given some of our recent Gnabry and Bennacer-shaped burns, I hope we’ll make a more informed decision this time around.
It’s still hard to tell which of these Hale End-ers will make it in the long run; some have the potential to be valuable squad players, some are already established in the first team and some will hopefully turn a tidy profit. The stickler has always been consistency, which for the time being, is what leaves Saka in a league of his own but given what Arteta managed to do with Raheem Sterling, I still have high hopes that a few more will make the leap from Rapid Wien to Premier League standards.
Through a wider lens, the match also served as a nice insight to what we can do with a mobile midfield. The systemic, domestic lethargy has always felt like the root cause of our problems; no matter what combination of players we play, we struggle to break teams down because we don’t move or pass fast enough. If players aren’t moving, there’s less options which means the ball gets recycled and we don’t progress.
Between Xhaka and Ceballos, the two have made 65 and 58 passes into the final third respectively, out of 440 and 468 total passes. How much of that is down to a lack of movement in that final third, and a lack of ambition or ability to make that pass remains to be seen – probably some from column A and column B. I find it hard to believe that last night’s performance and approach would be easy to translate to the Premier League and while that will probably continue to be a problem until we see some personnel changes, it’s nice to get some reassurance that it’s on the cards.
The third was the icing on the first-half cake and no less than we deserved after that kind of dominance, but there was so much to like about it. It was another glimpse into what Pépé can do with a bit of time and space in the final third, after a brilliant through-ball from Lacazette, with the eventual goalscorer in Eddie just as influential in build-up. With Balogun knocking at the door, it was important for him to get on the scoresheet again and while he had other opportunities to score, he has an real knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Wien obviously got some kind of Austrian-bollocking at half time and while they didn’t have any away fans to disappoint, they were noticeably more competitive after the break. Despite Kolasinac’s best efforts – and they really were great efforts – Kitagawa’s eventual finish put a bit of a dampener on an otherwise routine stomp.
It was especially nice for Smith-Rowe to round off the performance after more good work from Pépé and Ainsley, and he’s another player who’s previously shown the ability to contribute in the final third on a consistent basis. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I miss Ramsey and you just can’t put a price on late runners into the box (and the powers that be made sure there was no price on that). There might be some congestion for potential suitors here but Smith-Rowe has gone about his business in the right manner after a successful loan spell, so I’m sure he’ll have more opportunities if he manages to steer clear of any injuries.
Just the small matter of Sunday left, which I’d prefer not to speak about. They’re top, we’re 14th. I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit worried but class is permanent and we’re overdue a catalyst to get this season back on track.