Alexandre Lacazette’s goal in the 16th minute was all Arsenal needed to defeat Qarabag FK and cap off an unbeaten group stage in the Europa League. Several prospects performed well, while Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny played nearly the entire game in their returns from injury.
Highlights: 17-year old Bakuyo Saka had a few great chances to score in his first start for the club, including just a few minutes in, but his curled left-footed shot from the edge of the box was parried away by Vagner da Silva, the Qarabag’s goalkeeper.
Lacazette’s goal came as a result of good pressing by Eddie Nketiah on the right wing, which forced a turnover to Ozil. Lacazette received Ozil’s slightly deflected pass nicely, shifting his body between two defenders to create enough space to fire a shot back across his body and into the net.
Qarabag had a few dangerous moments from corners in the first half, but neither team really created any real chances in the opening 45 following Lacazette’s goal.
Zech Medley, an 18-year old center back, came on for Lacazette in the 63rd minute to play left-back. Ainsley Maitland-Niles switched to the right wing, pushing Nketiah up top as the lone striker. The front three of Saka, Nketiah, and Maitland-Niles was dangerous, and nearly produced a goal straight away, but a shot from Saka was deflected wide after a good cut-back from Maitland-Niles.
In the 76th minute, Nketiah glanced home a cross from Saka, but the goal was waved off as Nketiah was just barely offside. Saka should have scored himself from a few yards out in the 89th minute, but hit the keeper’s face with his shot. Nketiah had set up the chance, running on to a through ball from Maitland-Niles and sliding a pass across the box right to Saka. The ball was bouncing slightly, and Saka did well to settle it down, but the finish was just off.
Individual Performances: As we’ve come to expect given the lack of importance and intensity of these groups stage games, there was really nothing to glean from Arsenal’s overall effort tonight, especially considering the makeshift lineup. Arsenal controlled the match and were by far the better team, but the performance was often disjointed and sloppy, particularly in the first half. Yet, the individual performances of several players were notable.
Saka was the standout among the prospects on display tonight. He got better as the game went on, and was consistently dangerous. He very easily could have had a goal and an assist, and his ability to dribble past defenders is fun to watch.
Nketiah was more effective once he moved to his natural role as a center forward, and like Saka, caused problems for Qarabag’s defense. He was a little sloppy early on with his touch and his passing, but he worked hard throughout and forced the turnover for the goal.
Joe Willock was solid in midfield alongside Mohamed Elneny, and made some nice runs and passes. Medley also looked sharp on the ball in his spell on what was overall another step forward for Arsenal’s top prospects.
Ozil and Kosicielny got through the match unscathed, and both performed reasonably well. Ozil looked fresh and active, albeit a tad rusty. Koscielny had little to do, but got to spray some passes around and head the ball a few times in what was surely a special night for him.
Koscielny will likely be needed this Sunday when Arsenal travel to Southampton. Kick-off is at 8:30 am eastern time.