Job done. First place in the group clinched. Unbeaten in 18 straight.
It was all Arsenal tonight against Vorskla, who really didn’t put up much of a fight. The Gunners dominated the match from start to finish and got a glimpse of the future with strong performances from Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The poor performance from Vorskla is understandable. The match was moved off their home ground at the 11th hour and played in a mostly empty, lifeless stadium several hours away. The Ukraine is embroiled in a geopolitical (and military) conflict with Russia. Ukrainians are living under martial law. So it’s not a stretch to think the minds of the players may have been elsewhere tonight / this week.
A few thoughts on the match, although it’s tough to take too much away from it given the level of the competition:
- Eddie Nketiah: MOTM for me. He’s crafty on the ball, willing to run at defenders, and moves well off the ball. More importantly, he appears to have a strikers’ mentality. He’s got swagger and confidence. On Arsenal’s first goal, his reaction was telling - he put his head in his hands as if disappointed he didn't score himself, even though he created it.
- Emile Smith Rowe: should be getting more playing time, perhaps in the Premier League. Given Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s struggles and the relative lack of wide players at the club, starting right wing in the first eleven for ESR seems less and less farfetched each day. He has a knack for getting himself involved in the play and makes positive contributions on and off the ball. He scored his third goal of the season tonight and was bafflingly denied another on a phantom call.
- Joe Willock: scored a lovely goal, his first senior goal at the club. Mohamed Elneny played a great ball to set up the counter and Willock did the rest. He ran at the defense, opened up his body, and calmly curled it around the keeper into the corner from 20 yards out.
- Zech Medley, Bukayo Saka, and Charlie Gilmour: congratulations to the three youngsters on their senior team debuts. Medley looked composed on the ball and passed well. Saka made a couple of driving runs with the ball, one of which led to a good shot. Gilmour didn’t have much to do but didn’t make any mistakes.
- Carl Jenkinson: looked surprisingly strong at center back. His play should earn him at least another cup start at the position. Could the forgotten man resurrect his Arsenal career with a move to the middle?
With tonight’s win, the final group stage match, home against Qarabag, is a dead rubber. Hopefully, Unai Emery will give even more young players a run out. Heck, just play the entire U23 team. I envision a night filled with “he’s one of our own” songs and raucous support for the next generation of Arsenal stars.
The Gunners are next in action on Sunday, home to Tottenham. And because PDB doesn’t like the phrase “must-win,” I’ll say this - it’s a Really Really Important Game.