It probably wasn’t Mikel Arteta’s pre-match team talk, but it could have been. “Forget brinksmanship. Group stage drama is for amateurs and also-rans. Just go out, do the job and wait until the Champions League’s proper action starts in February.” Perhaps it would have been emphasised with lots of hand gesticulations, had he taken that approach.
After the week’s earlier drama involving fellow Premier League teams, Arsenal fans might have been feeling a little left out in that regard, but they shouldn’t be. Their side is far more complete, far further along the team-building process and far more prepared to go far in a major European competition. It’s probably also fair to note they have a far more routine group, certainly than Newcastle at least.
This 6-0 drubbing of a distinctly second-rate RC Lens showed as much, as does the far more important fact of Arsenal qualifying for the last 16 with a game to spare.
Sevilla collapsing to lose to PSV in the earlier kick-off felt as though it might give more of a contest at the Emirates, perhaps create more of a hint of jeopardy, but in truth it was never the case. A win still guaranteed top spot and in any case, there was more than a mere gulf between these sides.
The early knockings told the truth of the expectation of a home win: Lens fans made the noise but Arsenal had all the control. Takehiro Tomiyasu roused the crowd with a blockbusting run down the flank to nowhere; Kai Havertz dropped a header wide after the Japanese international crossed deep. If he might have done better that time, Havertz did so only a minute later: following a cross into the area, the German got enough of a touch on Gabriel Jesus’s clever header into the six-yard box to prod past Brice Samba and over the line. And that was effectively that.
A tempting line to pursue would be of the goal settling the nerves, but none had been on display. Arsenal were assured and competent throughout, clear by 25 minutes and able to bask in a quite literal glow as Lens fans lit a succession of bright red smoke flares at that point, with at least one hurled upwards into a home fans’ section above them.
Gunners fans responded with a verbal volley of their own, informing the visitors they appeared to be rather similar in quality to some near north London neighbours, and suggesting they were not particularly good… in rather more rudimentary terms. If the former quip bore no semblance to reality this season, the latter was unfortunately accurate. Lens were a mile off the quality, intensity and even strength of their hosts in the first half, timid and reactive, absurdly out of their depth despite mathematics suggesting they still had a shot at a last-16 place. They don’t any more.
The match, the points and Arsenal’s own qualification was settled in the space of six minutes.
Bukayo Saka bundled through a couple of challenges, Jesus picked up the loose ball, dummied the last defender and buried a low finish for his fourth of the group stage. Injury and inconsistency may have made him a bystander in the early Golden Boot standings domestically, but he has a goal per game for the Gunners in Europe – the type of contribution they’ll need in the latter stages if Arteta believes they can go deep.
Just two minutes later, two became three as Gabriel Martinelli darted infield, curled in a shot and Samba this time parried dreadfully into the hip of Saka, the ball bouncing straight in. The least-technically demanding goal of his career it might have been, but Saka was full of running infield and, not for the first time, made his own luck with his determination to continually be in dangerous areas. It was left to Martinelli, then, to complete the set of front-line goalscorers, perfecting his earlier trick to give Samba no chance and find the far corner for four.
As for Lens, they carried no threat. They offered nothing: neither diligent, compact defensive structure to frustrate and bide their time, nor committing numbers and having a plan to counterattack with regularity.
Elye Wahi, a talented young striker who surely has a much bigger team in his near future, made a handful of clever runs but the closest Lens came to scoring was his left-footed strike across goal, easily saved. Other than that, their best moments were Wahi skinning William Saliba multiple times down the left flank and Kevin Danso thinking about a long-range shot, before opting not to. It was genuinely that poor from them. Even Facundo Medina hitting the post just before the interval was an irrelevance, with the offside flag up. At the other end, Samba saved only one shot all half – and it still resulted in a goal as that was his palm-out into the onrushing Saka.
Yet more torment for the Ligue 1 side was to come before the brief sanctuary of half time, with Martin Odegaard casually thumping in an injury-time volley: unmarked, unchallenged and unstopped.
To their credit, or perhaps to keep warm on a freezing London night, Lens fans remained bouncing and noisy. With Arteta’s team stepping off the gas, job done well before Jorginho’s late penalty, their team also fared better in the second 45 but all they have to play for now is third and the Europa League.
For Arsenal, every box has been ticked in the group stage: over-excitement, wake-up call, improvement and professionalism. And, they are through, which is really all that matters.
Several seasons of progression has carried Arsenal into challenger territory, and with that comes an understanding that scorelines like this simply don’t matter, at this time of year. It is two and three months from now when everything will be on the line, when the world will be watching and when performances as well as results can truly drive expectations of success. What tonight’s result ensured was that they’ll be there – and that few will want to draw them in the knockouts.