The last time that Arsenal scored in a Champions League match was Arsenal v. Bayern Munich, March 7th, 2017. Arsenal were already essentially out of the competition after losing the first leg at the Allianz arena 5-1 when Theo Walcott popped up in the 20th minute, got off a few lucky dribbles, decided not to pass the ball to a wide open teammate, and crushed a shot over Manuel Neuer who looked surprised. Bayern would go on to win that match 5-1 and put Arsenal out of the competition on a 10-2 aggregate. That was five and a half years ago but I remember clearly saying that we didn’t deserve to be in the Champions League and that it was utterly pointless because we literally had no chance to win the tournament.
It’s hard to resist the urge to fast forward past the next 66 months (2,388 days) but I think we have to because there was nothing fast about it. We are a club that always does things our own way and without a doubt the road we took from 2017 to here was one of the longest and most arduous sports journeys I’ve seen. But two managers later, hundreds of millions spent on new players, players in and out, systems changes galore, a global pandemic, and a couple of heart achingly close seasons to glory and we are finally back in the Champions League. And based on last night’s performance, a 4-0 win over PSV, we are back where we belong.
Arteta made a few changes to his lineup from last weekend. In came Kai Havertz to play the number 8 and because of injury to Gabriel Martinelli, Leandro Trossard got the start on the left. Perhaps a bit controversially, however, David Raya kept the number one spot.
Arsenal started well. The press was coordinated and slick when we were out of possession and the interchanges between Trossard and Havertz on the left looked almost as good as those between Saka and Øde on the right. It was Havertz’s best night in an Arsenal shirt so far, though there’s still so much he has to do to get up to speed.
Meanwhile Jesus was a pest in the number 9 role, dragging the PSV defenders around the box with him, winning aerials (which is always cool since he’s a bit of a short arse at 177cm), and spearheading Arsenal’s press. Declan Rice patrolled the midfield, winning the ball back and keeping things going while Zinchenko was given the keys to the realm and allowed to pick out delicious switches, crosses, through balls, and long verticals which made PSV endure a hell of a night.
There were a few moments of worry at the back, mostly on the right where Benjamin White struggled to cope with Lang and Dest but the defensive line worked together excellently and covered for him when he was beaten.
It is most fitting that Arsenal’s first goal was scored by Bukayo Saka. No player epitomizes this new Arsenal more than Saka: hard working, virtually impervious, and ruthless in front of goal. Saka and Ødegaard were virtually unstoppable on the right. PSV’s defenders didn’t have an answer for them and their close control, each one wriggling in and out of trouble effortlessly, creating space for themselves and their teammates with clever dribbles and passes to each other. It was one such move which opened Arsenal’s Champions League accounts. Saka just freezing his defender, passing to Øde, making a run, and instead of the return pass Øde was a bit selfish and took the shot. But it turned out ok in the end because when the PSV keeper tried to grab the shot, he bobbled it a bit and Saka was there to clean up.
The second was created almost entirely by Gabriel Jesus (though he won’t get the assist). A weak clearance from a PSV attack fell plumply to the center circle where Jesus noticed that no PSV player would be able to beat him to the ball. So he put on the afterburners, picked up the loose ball, and dribbled around one of their center backs. He had Trossard on the left and Saka speeding down the right. He correctly picked out a pass for Saka, who once again dribbled inside, beating his man and laid on a great pass for Leandro who had made a good run to get to the top of the box. One thing that cannot be overlooked is that Jesus made just a little curling run in the box, toward Saka, dragging a team of defenders to him like a school of fish. From there, all Trossard had acres of space and all he had left to do was one-touch pass the ball into the side netting from 20 yards. A difficult skill which he made look oh so easy. Queue the owl celebrations!
Jesus looked like he really wanted to get on the score sheet, popping up more than a few times with a shot in good positions. But each one was denied until the 38th minute. A long pass out to Trossard on the left, he played with his marker like a cat with a toy mouse, put in a cross for Jesus who took a miraculous touch and stopped the ball dead, before blasting in Arsenal’s third.
At that point the match was essentially over. PSV made a couple of tame attacks and David Raya was allowed to claim some of the easiest saves he will ever make. Around the 60th minute, Arteta was able to make a few subs and Zinchenko and Trossard were given a breather. Tomiyasu came on and played Zinchenko’s inverted left back fairly well while Nelson played ok in Trossard’s spot. A few minutes later Arteta made some subs that I thought we’d never see: Vieira came on for Saka and Smith Rowe for Jesus. It wasn’t really that straightforward: The Smith actually moved into Havertz’s number 8, Kai moved to 9, and Vieira took up the right wing. This is exactly the kind of versatility I highlighted at the start of the season. We have a lot of players who can play in a number of positions across the front and back line. Tomiyasu is great, but he’s right footed. It’s incredible to think that a RF player would be able to not just play left back but play inverted as a deep lying midfielder on the left as well. Havertz looked ok at the number 9 but most important, he just offers a different way of playing that we can use in moments when we need them. He’s not a 100% classic 9, the ball doesn’t “stick” to him the way it would with Giroud or something, but he’s OK in that role and for short bursts it’s a useful switch.
Ødegaard got the 4th goal which was well worked by Smith Rowe (though it’s Nelson who got the assist). Just a word on that goal: the way Øde sets that up is just textbook: dribbling to the left to create room and a bit of misdirection and then firing back across the keeper into the bottom corner. A hell of a trick if you can pull it off!
From there, what we wanted was the clean sheet. We haven’t had one at home yet this season and just one (last day against Wolves) since March 1st (Everton) of last year. Overall, it’s very poor for a home team to have just two clean sheets in their last 12 home matches and something we need to clean up if we want to challenge in the Champions League and Premier League this season. Arteta put on Jorginho for Rice and the Britalian did a great job patrolling the midfield, breaking up play, and helping to keep the clean sheet.
There’s not much more to say at this point. It was just the perfect return to the Champions League for the Arsenal. Hopefully, everyone is 100% healthy for the Spurs match on Sunday. It’s a big one.