Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came off to the bench to spare Arsenal’s blushes as they came from behind to get their Europa League campaign off to the perfect start against Rapid Wien.
The Gunners looked to be heading to an embarrassing defeat after a lacklustre performance was made worse when a Bernd Leno error gifted Rapid the lead.
Leno continued to wobble but a David Luiz header got Arsenal back on level terms before Aubameyang was in the right place at the right time to turn the game around.
Mikel Arteta named a surprisingly strong team with Thomas Partey handed his full debut. The inclusions of Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pépé and Gabriel Magalhães ensured the manager was taking no chances despite being heavy favourites.
While they dominated possession, their creative flaws were all too evident again. Rapid were very disciplined and organised down the centre and were quick to close down on the wings, which left Arsenal struggling to break through.
When they did find a way in they were either denied by the offside flag or an outstretched leg of a Rapid defender.
While chances were at a premium, bookings were not with Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah and Partey all picking up soft yellow cards.
After a relatively comfortable opening, the hosts grew into the game and every kick was cheered on by their buoyant crowd – something the Arsenal players haven’t experienced since March.
Marcel Ritzmaier – on loan from SkyBet Championship side Barnsley – had the best chance of the first half when his deflected flick almost wrong-footed Leno but the German managed to adjust in time. However, the goalkeeper was glad to see Ercan Kara fire wide after turning past a static Luiz as they continued to press.
The Austrians continued to dictate the play after the break and eventually took the lead, but it was all Arsenal’s own doing. Playing out from the back has helped the Gunners since Arteta’s appointment but it proved to be a hinderance as Kara closed down Leno and managed to divert the German’s pass into Taxiarchis Fountas, who made no mistake from close range.
With a lead to protect the hosts began to retreat and Arsenal started to ask the questions again but for all the possession they had, they couldn’t test Richard Strebinger. Another uncomfortable moment for Leno presented Rapid with another golden opportunity but this time they couldn’t take advantage.
Arsenal needed to change things up and so Arteta introduced Aubameyang and Héctor Bellerín for the final half hour and the duo combined to change the game.
The pair added much-needed urgency to the game and while creativity still proved to be a problem, a perfect delivery from a Pépé corner saw Luiz rise highest to nod over the advancing Strebinger, who probably would have kept it out had he stayed on his line.
Leno’s night threatened to get even worse when he raced out to clear a ball but only managed to cannon a strike off Luiz. The ball fell to Fountas but he couldn’t find the target.
Arteta’s substitutes then came to the fore when Mohamed Elneny picked out the run of Bellerín and the Spaniard had the simple job of squaring the ball to Aubameyang for a tap-in.
Joe Willock, Kieran Tierney and Reiss Nelson came on to help see out a hard-fought win.