Arsenal may have been ‘scared’ in Watford on Sunday but Unai Emery was able to find refuge where he feels safest while his Gunners got their Europa League campaign off to a positive start at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Last season’s finalists began their Group F campaign with their toughest-looking pre-Christmas test by entering the Commerzbank Arena cauldron and eventually quietening the frenzied Frankfurters to ease the pressure on Emery who, for the first time during his year-long Arsenal rein after the trip to Vicarage Road appeared to be fighting a losing battle to retain the faith of supporters and, if some reports are to be believed, his players.
But Emery slipped back into the Europa League like he might his favourite slippers. In contrast to Sunday, in an environment in which he is used to winning, he made the right calls before and during what had become a a crucial game for the Gunners.
The group stages may become the preserve of Arsenal’s young players and Emery’s second string for the rest of the year, but for this trip to Germany, the manager could not afford to give many of his experienced stars the night off. Nor did they deserve one. A senior spine, consisting of David Luiz, Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was supplemented by the prodigious talent of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock as Emery found the perfect blend of youth and experience for this particular occasion.
You would not have blamed Emery for relishing the prospect of shoving the regulars back out into the spotlight. Aubameyang aside, none of the side which played at Watford deserved any respite from the intense glare under which they capitulated at the weekend.
Here they were fortunate that their mistakes were not as ruthlessly punished by Frankfurt. The most embarrassing moment on an afternoon of humiliation at Watford came when Sokratis gifted Tom Cleverley the opportunity to half Arsenal’s advantage which they eventually surrendered entirely. Sokratis was taken out of the firing line but four minutes was all it took to demonstrate that goldfish still catch on quicker than the Gunners, with Xhaka being caught in his own third before Emilino Martinez made the first of seven saves.
Arsenal’s approach to goal-kicks became noticeably more guarded after their early escape, but bad habits continued to plague them throughout. With David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, neither the quickest, playing at the heart of a defence laced with calamity, the back four dropped deeper on to Martinez’s toes while their midfield screen, Xhaka and Lucas Torreira went the other way in misguided attempts to press.
The result was a gaping void in which Frankfurt flourished. Only wasteful finishing and exemplary goalkeeping from Martinez denied the hosts. Arsenal too were profligate in front of goal with Torreira, Saka, Willock and Smith Rowe all wasting glorious opportunities in a first half that all too closely resembled a basketball match.
It took a hefty deflection for either side to find the net but Arsenal’s youngsters deserved the break, with Saka leading another counter attack and Willock getting the reward for driving inside and taking on the shot.
It was a precarious lead while Frankfurt were allowed to get within seven of Watford’s record total of 31 shots on Arsenal’s goal but unlike at Vicarage Road, Emery made the right substitutions at the right time, with Nicolas Pepe, Dani Ceballos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles dispatched from the bench to offer, respectively, a renewed threat, an injection of composure and an alternative to Sead Kolasinac seeing red.
Dominik Kohr had already fallen off that disciplinary tightrope and once down to 10 men with 11 minutes to play, Frankfurt’s threat subsided. In the midfielder’s absence, Saka was given plenty of time on the edge of the box to pick his spot, but the 18-year-old applied an expert finish to find it.
The hosts had already thrown in the towel by the time Aubameyang sauntered through to maintain his goal-a-game record this season. It was a scoreline that flattered the Gunners, not that Emery should care one jot for whatever injustice Frankfurt may feel.
He will be rather more concerned with the same holes appearing in the usual places but bugs that have plagued Arsenal for years were never going to be fixed in three days after Watford. Emery can reflect with relief and satisfaction on a job well done personally, and a hugely encouraging performance from the young players on their biggest platform to date.