To butcher a phrase Arsène Wenger coined many years ago, if you eat caviar every day, sometimes it is not so bad to return to sausages. After all those seasons of Champions League, Arsenal have rather taken to life in the Europa League. It is not always easy to get the blend right with a reshuffled team, a mix of older pros who are perhaps not getting as much football as they want, and kids desperate for opportunities. But Arsenal got stuck into their sausages, established enough “cohesion” to please the manager, and ended up having the better of a rollicking, bundles of chances, blast in Belarus.
Bate Borisov 2-4 Arsenal: Europa League – as it happened
Theo Walcott scored twice and Olivier Giroud netted his 100th Arsenal goal in a 4-2 win over Bate Borisov
There was always going to be a question of how seriously Arsenal take the group stage of this competition and it is to the credit of the senior players chosen for this trip, who did not take this game lightly, that they are coasting Group H without being wholly convincing. Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott are two of the club’s longest-serving players and they created the platform to help Arsenal secure maximum points from their European outings so far. Olivier Giroud, another of the senior performers, slotted in his 100th goal for the club. Walcott was on a hat-trick when a penalty was awarded early in the second half but stood aside to let his team-mate join a grand list of centurions. The Frenchman coolly placed his shot and enjoyed the moment.
Wenger went straight to Giroud after the game to congratulate him on his milestone. “It is a remarkable achievement,” he said. “He is in good company. When you play football the most difficult thing is to score goals and he scored 100 for us.”
The Arsenal manager was also particularly complimentary about Wilshere, who continues to improve and catch the eye with each performance since his latest injury, bringing even greater authority. Playing a more advanced role than central midfield, he was influential. “He had an outstanding first half, did fight until the end, and is on a good way back to his best,” noted Wenger. “He is at an age where a player normally gets to the best of his career. He has only been stopped by a series of injuries. I just pray he is not hampered any more by any problems. He will get stronger and stronger. He has shown tonight he has not lost any football.”
With a host of first-teamers left in London and spared the 2,500-mile trip, Arsenal’s team leaned on the knowhow of players with abundant experience. Across a starting XI that included three youngsters they still had a combined 400 international caps. With Wilshere excelling and Walcott darting around just behind Giroud, Arsenal created enough of a lead that even when Bate burst into life the result was not in serious danger. It was just as well Wenger’s front men produced as the defenders had numerous ragged moments of their own in a very open game.
Part of the character of the Europa League experience is the chance to go off the beaten track and Arsenal’s first away trip took them to Borisov, the ninth-largest place in Belarus. Nestled in the woods just on the outskirts a spaceship stadium is parked, full of rainbow colour, which is home to its nation’s perennial champions.
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They were soon behind as Arsenal started sharply. Wilshere’s vision shone and when his creative finery picked out Walcott, the forward finished with a neat header. Arsenal added another couple in a three-minute burst midway through the first half. Bate’s last line of defence, Denis Scherbitski, dropped an exceptional clanger, popping the ball straight to Walcott who drilled in past the stricken keeper. Arsenal turned the screw and Rob Holding looked ecstatic to shin in the third from a corner.
Leading with confidence made the occasion one to relish for the youngsters given a chance to pick up the experience of a European away match. Wenger’s faith in youth was interesting, especially as all three rookies played in midfield – the heartland packed in this case with inexperienced promise. At 18 years old, Joe Willock had presence in the centre alongside Mohammed Elneny, with the 17-year-old Reiss Nelson and 20-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles showing flashes of ability from the wider wing-back roles.
Mirko Ivanic took advantage of some soft Arsenal defending to head in a goal acclaimed joyously by the home crowd. Bate scored another to cherish in the second half when Mikhail Gordeichuk rifled in from close range. Ospina had to be alert to punch away moments later. Somehow Arsenal were in danger of snatching anxiety from the jaws of a comfortable victory.
They saw out the game, and headed home and back to the Premier League. A difficult week to manage has so far been handled well.
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