It is not very often that a 3-0 performance to advance in the Europa League was unconvincing, but this is the general feeling after Arsenal defeated Stade Rennais at the Emirates. Arsenal took advantage of early opportunities in the first fifteen minutes of play to allow them some breathing room. However, Stade Rennais were the much better side when looking at the entirety of the ninety minutes. Unfortunately for the French side, they were unable to convert on any of their opportunities. It was an admirable defeat by Rennes and their traveling supporters came in full force to show their appreciation.
Arsenal quickly scored the needed goal when Aubameyang tapped in a wonderful pass by Ramsey in front of goal. The credit, though, must go to Ainsley Maitland-Niles who passed the ball into the box after a skillful dribble around the Rennes defender. Following the goal, Arsenal continued to create space in Rennes half, which was the result of quick short passes by the Arsenal midfield.
The Gunners doubled their lead and got the advantage in the tie with a powerful header by Maitland-Niles. The Stade Rennais defenders fell asleep after thinking Kolasinac was offside, which he was, but failed to pick up Aubameyang who came in to lift the ball over the keeper from the left side of the penalty box. Nobody picked up Maitland-Niles and he was able to run in and hit the ball into the ground and past the disappointed Tomas Koubek.
Shortly after Arsenal’s goal in the fifteenth minute, the Stade Rennais players rallied to gain threatening possession in the final third. Maitland-Niles notably made a great tackle to prevent advancement into the penalty box. Yet, Rennes remained threatening throughout the remainder of the game. They were able to break down Arsenal’s back line with balls in behind and forced the Arsenal wingbacks to make up ground when tracking back. Stade Rennais had a tremendous opportunity to get the all important away goal when Niang’s shot a ball that just hit off the post.
The Arsenal defenders never seemed comfortable on the ball with a two goal lead. This includes Xhaka, at times, from the midfield. There were a few errant passes that quickly allowed Rennes to regroup and pose another challenge to goal. As a result, Ozil’s influence was stymied in the second half until his substitution for Henrik Mkhitaryan.
It was Unai Emery’s tactical substitutions that ultimately allowed Arsenal to see out the second leg at home. The decision to bring on both Mkhitaryan and Iwobi at the same time breathed new life into the Arsenal attack. Emery knew that a third goal would enable a greater feeling of comfort. Iwobi’s influence from his vision and skill on the ball continued to create opportunities to settle the match. The addition of Lucas Torreira for Ramsey provided an additional energetic body to press the ball and prevent too many dangerous passes in Arsenal’s half. Torreira’s effect on the game was middling to what Emery would have hoped for.
Aubameyang gave Arsenal the important third goal with a tap in off of a cross from Kolasinac. Of course while it was a tap in, the goal still required Aubameyang’s ability to find threatening spaces in the box. The Gabonese striker’s jubilation was cemented with his “Wakanda Forever” celebration while wearing the iconic Black Panther mask. Unfortunately for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he had two relatively easy chances to bring the score to 4-0 and the tie to 5-3. The first came from a ball in behind when Iwobi slid a pass through the Rennes back line in the 81st minute. This chance was subsequently followed by an straightforward shot on goal in the 82nd minute, which he muffed well wide of Koubeck.
The Ligue 1 side were constantly on the front foot and manager, Julian Stephan, would be proud of his sides determination. He will, however, rue their inability to take advantage of their well deserved chances. There were quite a few offside calls that, had the Rennes’ player been able to stay onside, would have led to a great look on goal. They allowed little freedom to the Arsenal players to keep any significant possession of the ball for stretches at a time.
At the end of the day, Arsenal will be happy to have been able to comeback after a disastrous first leg. The 3-0 score line ay not paint a full picture of how menacing Rennes proved to be. They will look forward to staying alive in a competition that could prove to be their lifeline into the Champions League come the end of the season. On a different note, Alex Iwobi will be hoping that nothing will come from his apparent kick out in the dying minutes of the game. It was missed by the referee when the incident occurred, however, UEFA will surely take a second look at the possible infraction.
Player of the Match: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Honorable Mention: Ainsley Maitland-Niles