In the spirit of togetherness, Arsenal might agree Mesut Özil was half right. The exiled playmaker had warmed to his armchair fan status and offered an open show of the loyalty he feels has not been afforded him, in predicting his teammates would win 4-1. They never looked like running up a comparable score but did, eventually, have too much for a competent Rapid Vienna side that had been superior for the first hour.
The game turned, as one might have expected, when Mikel Arteta hauled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the bench. Any hope of holding on beyond the 61st minute to bring on the big guns was scotched when Taxiarchis Fountas gave Rapid the lead soon after half-time with a goal Bernd Leno will not want to see again. But Arsenal went through the gears and David Luiz’s equaliser was quickly followed by a smart combination between the two substitutes, Héctor Bellerín centring for Aubameyang to tap in his first goal since the opening weekend.
It was hard on the Austrian side but an illustration of what happens when you have extra quality in reserve: nothing more or less. For long periods Özil, who kept up a perky running commentary on social media, might fairly have noted that Arsenal have still not found a way to mount a sustained threat. They offered little until they were given a game to chase, although in the context of their Europa League campaign there is pleasure to be taken in safely negotiating their toughest-looking assignment in Group B.
Another bright spot was the performance of Thomas Partey, who exuded presence and composure in central midfield on his first start since arriving from Atlético Madrid. On this evidence Partey, excellent in possession and quick to sense danger, will do exactly what he was bought for. One piece of anticipation before half-time, tracking back to snick the ball away from Fountas as he looked to run clear, was first-rate and there was plenty to admire about some of his crossfield switches, too. Some of Partey’s predecessors have been hailed prematurely as the answer to Arsenal’s midfield issues but the Ghanaian does appear a class above.
“I think he was fantastic and there’s much more to come from him,” Mikel Arteta said. “He looked really solid, really comfortable. I think he held the midfield by himself in the second half when we were taking more chances.”
Arsenal were in that position because they brought problems on themselves. Rapid had created the better half-chances during a low-key opening period, Leno saving a back-flick from the Barnsley loanee Marcel Ritzmeier, and the warning signs were not heeded in a sloppy start to the second half.
Fountas’s goal was a calamity for Leno, who received the ball under pressure from David Luiz and saw Ercan Kara anticipate his pass. Kara’s touch diverted it to Fountas and the prolific Greece international, a danger throughout, thrilled the 3,000 watching fans with a clinical angled finish.
“If anything it’s my fault because I demand we do these things,” Arteta said. “We should have kicked the ball into the stand but to recognise that from the outside is different. We need to keep the right balance but will keep encouraging them to do it at the right moments.” It was a fair assessment given the box-to-box goals Arsenal have already scored under Arteta on more illustrious stages than this.
Before anyone could mutter “Emiliano Martínez”, Leno hadscuffed another kick out to Fountas, atoning by turning his low effort wide. Arsenal were rocking but the scales tipped after Arteta’s changes. David Luiz leapt to convert Nicolas Pépé’s free-kick, the Rapid keeper Richard Strebinger having charged out unwisely and left the goal open. Leno then got away with a third blooper when Fountas lofted over, but almost immediately Mohamed Elneny sent Bellerín away and the right-back’s centre was a gift for Aubameyang.
Özil’s support had been as relentless as the pressure that eventually broke Rapid. Arteta rolled his eyes when asked about the team’s long-distance supporter before answering: “It’s great, what I want from the players who aren’t in the squad, I don’t expect anything different.” For his part Özil had not expected a wildly dissimilar outcome from Arteta’s players, so everyone went home happy.