“Nice day for it,” someone quipped to his mate on the way to the turnstiles as torrential rain lashed down. The Champions League was back in town and nothing was going to dampen Arsenal’s enthusiasm for the occasion.
Most crucially, though, it was the sparkle of the players that struck a major chord. For the first time this season, Arsenal played with absolute conviction. They played with joy. They played with sharpness. They played with expression and collective desire. The Champions League came gift-wrapped to present them with the perfect set of circumstances to throw off some of the frustrations and inhibitions they find against packed, drilled, rugged defences in the Premier League. Maybe they needed this, to reset themselves and remember how good it feels to play up-tempo, bold football. Thanks, Champions League.
If Mikel Arteta could have designed the ideal game for his team, this was it. An open encounter against a team that like to play but are not as good as his group. Arsenal were liberated. It was like a blockage was removed. The fluency they have been looking for came flooding back through the system. It was comprehensive enough that the manager could give some of his star turns a breather ahead of the north London derby and give opportunities to what he now calls his “finishers”. It is a neat mechanism to make everyone feel included and valued. You may not start, but you will be trusted to finish, to come on and take part and see the game safely home.
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There was one player conspicuous by his non-involvement — Aaron Ramsdale was left on the bench while David Raya prowled his area with confidence. It is symbolic of quite how ruthless Arteta is that he is seeking out incremental improvements in every detail without sentimentality.
One of the challenges for Arteta this season is the need to keep his group as content and involved and ready as can be. The routine of Champions League weeks, with a different type of emotion sandwiched between Premier League tension, demands looking after the balance of the squad differently. He had to strengthen the squad, which means if you are not careful you can have some disappointed players on your hands. Finding a way to convince players to handle rotation and mixed opportunities is vital.
It was notable that the energy transmitted by the starters was quite well matched by the finishers. Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard excelled in slashing through PSV to build a comfortable lead. The welcome for their replacements, Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and Reiss Nelson, was heartfelt (particularly for Smith Rowe, who has been starved of minutes). The subs came bounding on keen to pick up the pace. Arteta said he was emotional to hear the support for Smith Rowe.
Declan Rice once again commanded the midfield with swagger until Jorginho, another who has not played much this term, entered with customary calm. Oleksandr Zinchenko drifted cleverly until Takehiro Tomiyasu arrived to slot in as the inverted wing-back. The transitions were all so smooth. It helped that some of those who played the whole game — the ultra-composed William Saliba, his partner Gabriel and the gifted driving force of Martin Odegaard – play key foundational roles.
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For the first time this season, Arsenal looked like a really in-the-zone team for almost the entire game, all switched on and brimming with positivity.
“When you see this team running and being full of pace and being vertical, it’s a joy to watch,” breezed Arteta. “In the box, we were exceptional today, we were ruthless, we took our chances. It was top.”
It was an exhibition from Arsenal’s new look front three of Jesus flanked by Saka and Trossard. They combined with a natural energy, with slickness of passing and creative movement, before each showcased clinical finishing.
Arsenal were ahead quickly. Odegaard whipped one of his now regular drives at the bottom corner and Saka pounced on the rebound to fizz in Arsenal’s first Champions League goal since Theo Walcott six and a half years ago. Saka spun his arms in a sashaying dance, beaming. Another memorable moment in his young career. Saka terrorised his marker. Unlike the Premier League, he had the benefit of not being triple-marked or hacked down every few minutes.
The second goal was another demonstration of a willingness to shoot on sight with eager accuracy. The goal was beautifully constructed. Jesus deceived PSV’s defenders with an artful touch and Saka and Trossard provided deadly contributions afterwards.
Jesus buzzed around the opposition like a mosquito hungry for blood. His desperation to score was written all over his expressive face. He looked as if he was making up for lost time following his injury. After a couple of good chances saved by Walter Benitez, when Trossard picked out Jesus his strike was venomous. Arsenal are a different proposition when he brings his particular brand of attacking chaos to the front line.
This new attacking trio revived Arsenal’s old style. They burst in numbers, weaving together passing patterns, eking out enticing and unpredictable spaces and angles. The imperious Odegaard helped himself to a fourth, finding the bottom corner, now his trademark finish.
Can Arsenal transfer this elan into the Premier League? If so, they can be grateful to be back in the Champions League in more ways than one.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)