Arsenal’s record signing Nicolas Pepe stepped from the bench and scored two sumptuous late freekicks to hand the Gunners a 3-2 comeback win over Vitoria Guimaraes.
Unai Emery made 10 changes from the side that lost to Sheffield United on Monday night, but Arsenal were slow starters and fell behind after just eight minutes.
Former Tottenham Hotspur youngster Marcus Edwards showed clever footwork and fired past Emiliano Martinez to hand the Portuguese side the lead with his second goal since his Iberian switch.
Gabriel Martinelli equalised with another smart finish, but within moments Bruno Duarte fired the away side back in front.
Arsenal, with Alexandre Lacazette leading the line in the absence of the rested Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled for rhythm in attack, while fans called out the name of the again-absent Mesut Ozul once again.
They couldn’t find a breakthrough from open play and with 80 minutes gone, looked set for defeat.
But then Pepe arrived on the scene and with two sweet strikes of his left foot, the Gunners continued their 100 percent record in the Europa League this term.
Here’s five talking points from the Emirates…
1. Ozil – the new Hatem Ben Arfa
When Emery was in charge of Paris Saint-Germain, he ostracised a supremely talented but unreliable wayward creator.
That, ultimately, led to Hatem Ben Arfa taking PSG to court.
Now Emery has appeared to sideline World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, who has been training and, seemingly, is fully fit and available.
Ozil hasn’t been seen since the Carabao Cup win over Nottingham Forest and has played just 142 minutes this term.
Of course, it won’t just be Emery’s call to effectively freeze out the club’s biggest earner; those above Emery will almost certainly be in agreement.
But, surely having Ozil on the bench would have been a good option for the Spaniard.
The sight of Lucas Torreira playing as the No.10 in the second half won’t have done anything to appease the section of the crowd chanting the German’s name.
2. Edwards impresses on north London return
If you ask them now, Mauricio Pochettino and Marcus Edwards probably both regret the Tottenham manager’s likening his then-fledgling prospect to Lionel Messi in 2016.
Edwards was tipped to start for Spurs, one of English football’s brightest young prospects then.
Three years on, after a failed loan spell at Norwich (one appearance) and a temporary stay at Excelsior Rotterdam (who were relegated), Edwards is now moving forwards at Vitoria, whom he joined in September on a four-year deal.
This was just the Camden kid’s fourth appearance for the Portuguese side, but the 20 year-old showed enough here with his goal – his second for the side – and some fine touches to suggest that he can enjoy an impressive season with them, and then make forward strides once more.
3. Maitland-Niles misses his mark
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has more often than not operated as a fullback under Emery.
Hector Bellerin’s injury offered him first-team opportunities last term and he grabbed them with both hands.
But after a difficult start this season he’s lost the spot as first reserve to Bellerin to Calum Chambers – and has been quick to point out that he prefers to play further forward anyway.
Tonight he got the chance to start in midfield – and was bitterly disappointing.
Sloppy in possession, he took too many touches when on for two would suffice and failed to have any real positive impact.
With Arsenal 2-1 down, it was unsurprising to see him hooked at the break.
4. Promising signs from Pepe
“Everything is new for him, in the last two or three games, I think he’s improved a lot of things,” said Granit Xhaka in his programme notes.
“He’s working hard, in defence as well. Maybe at the moment he just needs a bit of luck.”
The Arsenal captain is certain the £72million winger just needs time to adapt and will come good for the Gunners and the signs in his second-half cameo certainly suggest as much.
The Ivorian produced a wonderful freekick from distance to level the scores at 2-2.
He produced a better one to win it with virtually the last kick.
His arrival injected some dynamism into the Arsenal attack. At his best, he can be a real difference-maker, someone who can beat a man and lead a counter – as well as being able to pick a clever pass.
This was a promising display that, you hope, he can build upon.
5. Unai Emery still not getting things right
The Arsenal boss had the opportunity to experiment with his first XI this Thursday; bring the hungry players in out of the cold, try a new formation etc.
He did that for the most part, giving the likes of Lucas Torreira and Emile Smith-Rowe a rare run-out, but apparently learnt very little about his side.
Arsenal were their usual sloppy selves in defence, the fringe players – Gabriel Martinelli aside – did little to prove they’re hungry for a regular place in the first team, and the Gunners were largely second best.
Fans are starting to get on Emery’s back now too – one supporter even had an Emery Out sign, while others sang the name of the ostracized Mesut Ozil.
The win will paper over the cracks for now, but Emery needs to start getting things right soon.