Arsenal Successfully Complete Phase One of Europa League Campaign

Arsenal player Martin Odegaard at training

In a crazily over-crowded schedule, with a World Cup bang in the middle, the aim is to try and play as few games as possible to try and protect yourself from the inevitable fatigue later on. Fortunately for Arsenal, they achieved that aim in the Europa League against FC Zurich, winning the match, and with it their group, going directly into the last 16 and avoiding having to play in the last 32.

A Minimal Performance Ends Phase 1 of the Europa League

Increasingly, it looks like Arsenal’s 5-0 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in their last Premier League game was the exception to the rule, the rule being that after a flying start to the season both domestically and in European competition, The Gunners are slowing down, especially when it comes to scoring goals. They made it a fourth 1-0 win in seven matches against Zurich, which pleased Old School Gooners who love to chant “Keep the nil” but also raised further questions about the team’s goal-scoring capability.

Against the Swiss side, Gabriel Jesus once again performed his own unique one-man version of The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”, adding his own chorus of “Except In Front of Goal”. His movement and work rate are undeniably impressive, but Mikel Arteta must be tempted to tell him to save most of his effort for inside the box.

Read more: Arsenal Revive Memories of Defensive Mastery 

Interesting Tactical Decisions

Perhaps what was more surprising was that Arteta did not try something different against Zurich, notwithstanding the importance of winning the game. Arsenal’s second striker Eddie Nketiah also played against the Swiss side, but on the wing, which was bizarre to say the least, given that he is never likely to threaten Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli for their first-team berths. Instead, it would surely have made more sense either to pair Nketiah with Jesus up front or switch Jesus to the wing and play the striker centrally.

Essentially, the North London club played like a team who thought that a minimal (if not minimum) level of performance would be sufficient against Zurich and that was especially true of those players who hope to go to the World Cup in a fortnight.  In fact, it was arguable that they only really played well for the 10 seconds or so that it took for Kieran Tierney to score his early goal with a fine shot, and for the rest of the game they were just trying to see out time and avoid injury.

But Injury Worries None The Less

Nevertheless, Arsenal could not escape injury worries completely, particularly for the players who at the start of the season were considered their first-choice fullbacks, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Tierney. Tomiyasu came on as a substitute in the second half but was substituted himself soon afterwards, with Arteta afterwards insisting that he did not want to take any risks with the player after he seemed to suffer a muscle problem. And Tierney, after a typically brilliant interception that stopped a late Zurich attack, crumpled like a wet paper bag. Arsenal fans, given his injury record, inevitably feared the worst, but he was able to play on and insisted afterwards that he was fine.

The London side “only” have three more matches before the World Cup, but of course, the first of those is the decidedly tricky away fixture at Chelsea this weekend. They may have won their last two league games at Stamford Bridge and drawn the one before that, but before then they had a dreadful record under both Arsène Wenger and Unai Emery. And of course this weekend Chelsea will have former Arsenal hero Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in their ranks. If he plays, it will be fascinating to compare his reluctance to leave the penalty box with Jesus’s apparent aversion to remaining inside it.

Read More: Arsenal Must Beware Over-Confidence

Where are Arsenal Heading?

With both London clubs competing for the Champions League places – at least – it should be a classic London derby, even if the noon kick-off time might just lead to a slow and sleepy start for both players and fans. If Arsenal could make it a hat-trick of away wins against the Blues, that would not only put them 13 points ahead of them (which is usually the kind of lead that Chelsea have over Arsenal by this stage of the season) but dramatically boost their chances of making a sustained challenge for the title, or at the very least the top two.

However, on the evidence of the Zurich match and most of the games that have preceded it over the last month, Arsenal will have to regain some of their impressive early-season form to get anywhere near a win. With Jesus now undeniably experiencing a goal drought (he has not scored in his last eight games) and his understudy Nketiah still looking like he will never really challenge him for a first-team place, the London side and their fans will probably have to look to their brilliant young wingers, Saka and Martinelli, to score the goals they will surely need to secure at least a draw, if not more.