It’s Friday, our last game is now no longer the disastrous performance at Watford, we have our first win in the Europa League and it was done away to what I think is the best team in the group that we will face. There’s also the added benefit of a couple of young players really coming of age in a hostile environment and suddenly we can look with a little more enthusiasm towards the weekend’s home game against Villa with a little more positivity.
Of course there will be those that want to temper the feeling by telling themselves – and probably you on social media – that we played a pretty average Eintracht Frankfurt team and yes, they spurned chances, probably should have at least had one against us. But right now what we needed was a win and a comprehensive one in the end too. And that’s the most important element to take from last night.
Unai Emery has had a few detractors chucking a few stats bombs in his direction and the result is that we’ve seen some naysayers trying to dig at him online all week, so he too needed the win, although given the rotation he went for you wouldn’t have thought it. But perhaps it’s an admission from the manager that even in these early stages there is a need to rotate players. Maybe not because they are fatigued, but maybe instead to keep the match fitness of some of the players in reserve fit enough so that if called upon, they aren’t going to come in completely cold.
That’s fair enough from my perspective, but whilst yesterday saw starts for Martinez (who made some smart saves by the way), Chambers and Mustafi, we also got a decent blend of youth too, with Saka, Smith-Rowe, Willock, all starting too. And all three of those youngsters performed well.
The headline grabbed of course was Saka, but I’ll come to his performance in a minute, because I thought there were plenty of positives to draw. For one thing Joe Willock showed just how much he is progressing once again. He was energetic, lively, always happy to show for the ball and really once again stepped up his development. His goal was fortunate but reward for a good performance and he can be pleased that once again he has Arsenal fans purring at his prospects.
Smith-Rowe was quieter, but he still showed some flashes of the player we saw last season. He only lasted an hour but let’s not forget he’s not started a competitive game in 2019 so even if he was a 26-year-Old regular for the team coming back he would have looked rusty, so there’s no real issue for me in his quieter performance. And that performance only felt so because Saka really did deliver for us last night. He looked good in flashes last season in a few of the League Cup games but last night he showed how far his education has brought him, because he bossed it. He picked up an assist, a ‘sort of’ assist for Willock’s goal (although I’m always dubious when those types of assists are basic passes and it’s the goal scorer who does more of the work), as well as a sumptuous finish with his left foot placing it perfectly in to the corner of the goal beyond the Frankfurt ‘keeper. It’s the sort of goal you see Aubameyang scored and when the Gabon international put his arm around him when celebrating, you wonder if he might have said something similar in his ear.
Saka is a talent. He’s a driver with the ball and he’s not afraid to beat his man. Whether that talent converts in to consistency remains to be seen – after all Iwobi started on the same foot – but the basics are there and now it’s up to him to see just how far he can go.
So he and Willock were on the scoresheet and of course we had to get Auba on there too which gave us a pretty comprehensive score line. The reality was far from it and what we saw from Frankfurt – as well as our own defence – was that our problems have hardly been solved following a supposed team meal wash up following the Watford debacle. I thought Chambers had a torrid time all night but he clearly isn’t a right back and so it was a bit strange for me that Emery decided that Mustafi should play in the centre of defence instead of Chambers. Mustafi is more comfortable at right back and has a little more recovery pace and Chambers had a tough old time against Kostic. Conversely I thought the current two most maligned players – Mustafi and Xhaka – played quite well. Both needed this kind of performance and Mustafi hardly put a foot wrong. Emery has said he is going to integrate the German back in the team and after Sokratis’ couple of stinker performances I do wonder if Emery will consider other options on Sunday, away from the Greek. I think he certainly should because it tells the players that the standards have to be of the highest quality.
Frankfurt tested us and the game was far too open last night, much like it was on Sunday, but the opposition weren’t gifted goals and the result was a clean sheet and good win in the end. If we’d have replicated that on Sunday there’s still be a lot of positivity.
As it is there are still plenty of people adding in caveats and asterisks in relation to last night’s game. I understand that and Emery will too. The way to nip that in the bud, however, is to get three points and make it look good against Villa on Sunday.
Catch you all tomorrow.