We extended our unbeaten streak to 18 fixtures with a 3-0 win over Vorskla Poltava on Thursday night - but what did we learn from our Europa League outing?
OVER LAND AND SEA
Not so much something we noticed as something we heard, but our fans deserve a very honourable mention. You have to be pretty devoted to attend any Arsenal group game in Ukraine, but this was something else. Many of our fans were already in Poltava when Uefa responded to the introduction of martial law in several regions in Ukraine by switching our game to Kiev. Stories of six-hour car journeys or slightly shorter train rides have been doing the rounds ever since, but at the end of it all, our pocket of travelling fans were in position and in great voice. “Your ground’s too big for you…” was a reference to a crowd of around 5,000 in the 70,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, and Over Land And Sea has never sounded so apt. “We’re on our way… we’re going to Baku…” got an airing too, and if the team does its job then most of those who have already been to Azerbaijan this season will surely be back there in May. Baku’s a thousand miles further from London than Poltava or Kiev - but after this week it seems like a much more straightforward journey.
EMILE REAL DEAL
You only needed to glance at tonight’s teamsheet to appreciate that our academy is in rude health. But one graduate shone even brighter than the others in Kiev - Emile Smith Rowe. He’s had a head start on Thursday’s debutants - this was his sixth first-team appearance - but he looks right at home. Emile’s goal was almost incidental - he’d be the first to admit that the hard work was done by Eddie Nketiah and Aaron Ramsey before he applied the finish - because the rest of his game was even more eye-catching. No one drove us on more as we wrested control of the game, and those surges through the lines were equally effective whether his starting position was infield or out on the touchline. Emile glides past opponents with ease, is fastidious in possession and has the ability to open up defences. If you didn’t see his delicious scooped pass for Eddie Nketiah late in the first half, go back and watch it now.
EDDIE - MORE THAN GOALS
Goals are a kind of oxygen for Eddie Nketiah. He’s always scored them, expects to score them and, when he squanders a chance, it hurts him. He knows he could and possibly should have opened the scoring in Kiev, linking up beautifully with Aaron Ramsey before losing his bearings. Emile Smith Rowe finished off Eddie’s hard work, and the young striker continued to do plenty of good work - even if he didn’t get on the scoresheet. He found a willing foil in Ramsey and grew into the game after waiting a while for his first touches. Eddie was a big influence in the second half, holding the ball up expertly and linking play with our runners from midfield. He fired just wide as the final seconds ticked away - but this was a good night’s work, even without the goal he craved.
THE EXUBERANCE OF YOUTH
The average age of our starting XI on Thursday was 24 years 322 days, and that would have skewed even younger if you only counted outfield players. The number dropped dramatically in the second half when Zech Medley (18), Bukayo Saka (17) and Charlie Gilmour (19) came on to make their debuts. Charlie was the first Scot to play for us since Scott Marshall, 21 years and seven days earlier, and the 75th academy product to play for our first team since the turn of the century. All three debutants can be happy with their contributions and Saka went closest to a debut goal with a darting run and shot that the keeper pushed away. A tiring Vorskla defence certainly struggled to contain him.
One more thing we noticed: it’s difficult to type when the temperature is minus 14 centigrade. Hats off to Matteo Guendouzi though - while even the ref had gloves on, the French teenager just stretched his long sleeves over his bare hands.
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