Ever since Arsenal hit a terrible dip in their league form this winter, the Europa League has increasingly become the most important competition on their schedule. Sitting in 6th place, a depressing 13 points back from 4th place Tottenham, it is now the only feasible way for the Gunners to get back into the Champions League. Based on their performance Thursday night, the players seem well aware of this dynamic as the brought their “A” game into the Emirates for their showdown with CSKA Moscow. A high octane first half saw Arsenal take a 4-1 lead into the half, where the score would remain after 90 minutes. It was a convincing win for the home side, but one that was nevertheless expected by fans that have grown impatient with a lack of perceived progress. With the victory, Arsene Wenger and his team move one step closer to achieving their goal of European glory.
Attack In Peak Form
CSKA Moscow may not be as challenging an opponent as Arsenal will face all season, but the attack was so good, it would have had success against almost any side in Europe. CSKA went with a back 5 to try and limit the spaces for the Gunners to play through, but that didn’t stop their buildup play and ball movement in the final third from looking like a training ground exercise. Arsenal finished the match with 57% possession and 18 shots, 9 of which found the target. The only knock on the otherwise brilliant attack was how often the Gunners found themselves in an offside position, getting whistled 7 times during the match, including multiple instances in which they were clear on goal.
Alexandre Lacazette played well in his return to the starting XI for the first time since his injury, and managed to bag himself a brace. He was frustrated to be pulled off for Danny Welbeck with a quarter of an hour left to play. Aaron Ramsey also scored twice in the victory, assuring his reputation as a big game play remains intact. The midfield was exceptional transitioning from defence into attack, especially in the wide open first half, and they were able to use their opponents counter attacking style against them on more than one occasion with quick, decisive passes that quickly put the Gunners back out on the front foot. Had they not taken their foot off the gas a bit towards the end of the match, and had Ramsey been a bit more clinical in the latter stages of the match, the score could have been even more lopsided, but Arsene Wenger should be exceedingly happy to take a 3 goal cushion with him to Russia.
CSKA Surprisingly Strong Going Forward
Arsenal might have had the chance to score even more goals than they did, the same could easily be said about CSKA. In a way, the visitors had the perfect attacking plan: invite the Arsenal attack forward, drawing the fullbacks into the final third in order to spring the counter attack. This worked extremely well for them in the first half, leading to several tense moments for Petr Cech in goal. Ahmed Musa, who is currently on loan with the Russian giants from Leicester City, used his blazing pace to great effect and put tremendous pressure on the Arsenal defence. Unfortunately for the Nigerian, his finishing is way less of an asset to his game and he blazed more than one attempt over the bar.
Perhaps the most impressive player on the Emirates pitch for the visitors was midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, who seemed to marshal the majority of his team’s promising attacks. Some fans may recall hearing his name last summer when he was briefly linked to the Gunners, and it isn’t hard to see why. He scored the only CSKA goal of the match, an inch perfect free kick bent perfectly into the top corner past Cech’s outstretched glove. He was his side’s best distributor on the night, with his passes usually being the ones to find Musa and the other forwards in space. It was a surprisingly good performance from a team few gave any chance to win, but it is Golovin who appears to be the very best of the bunch. He is a player whose future almost certainly belongs in one of Europe’s top leagues.
The Problem With Smashing Teams
When the team is humming along, cruising towards a seemingly effortless victory, there is only one thing that can dampen the enthusiasm, and Henrikh Mhkitaryan was the victim of such a circumstance. In the 58th minute, CSKA wingback Georgy Schennikov planted an unnecessary knee to knee challenge on the Armenian, sending him crashing to the floor. Replays show the contact was above the knee, and it did not appear to whip his lower leg too much, so the hope is that his injury is closer to a contusion than a knee ligament issue. However, Mhkitaryan was withdrawn 3 minutes later for Alex Iwobi, and his walk around the pitch to the tunnel with physio Gary Lewan was very slow and deliberate.
Mercifully for the Gunners, the tie has all but been decided by their thorough first leg victory, but Mhkitaryan is very much a part of this team’s plan going forward in the Europa League. Should he be sidelined for any significant amount of time, the Gunners will need to find an alternative to the delightfully balanced and potent XI fans were treated to on Thursday
Better Than Zidane, Better Than Pogba
Without looking, you already know what the conversation is going to be today. “Flat track bullies” will be the key point when the pundits discuss Thursday’s first leg. Others will talk about how CSKA Moscow were so poor to let Arsenal beat them in this way. However, none of this takes away from the absolute class on display from two Gunners on a Thursday: Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey.
We’ve seen this before from Ozil. When he is in a rich vein of form, and his confidence is high, there is no player in the world who can match his vision and anticipation. He may have only completed 80% of his passes (low for him), but he completed 3 dribbles and made 5 key passes to go along with his two assists. He was positively gliding across the pitch, sending defenders the wrong way with his subtle trickery and putting his passes directly on his teammates in dangerous areas. If this incredible form can continue throughout the rest of the Gunners’ Europa League run, they have as good a chance as any team to take home the trophy.
As smooth and subtle as Ozil was, Aaron Ramsey equaled his teammate through sheer determination and work rate. The Welshman has been in incendiary form of late, and he added 2 goals to his season tally against CSKA. Ramsey seemed to be everywhere in the box, and all over the pitch for that matter, but his late runs from deep continue to be perhaps the most lethal weapon in the Arsenal…er…arsenal. He took 7 shots and completed 85% of his passes, but as ever, his contribution is always greater than the stats suggest. Not only has he been the best midfielder in the team this season, but a very compelling argument could be made that right now, he is the superior player to the most expensive midfield transfer of all time, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba.
Time To Finish The Job
The Gunners will now be turning their focus back toward the Premier League, as Southampton is next up on the schedule. Though the team has gone all in on European glory, it is important for the players to stay sharp for next Thursday, when they will travel to Moscow to play a very angry and desperate CSKA side. The diplomatic concerns between the two countries was a non-story during the first leg, but that won’t keep the Foreign Office from being tense over the safety of any travelling fans next week. As Aaron Ramsey stated however, the players are going to Russia for a football match, and they are excited to do so regardless of any tensions between the two governments. With a 3 goal lead in the tie, Arsenal are very much in the driver seat, but they will need to make sure they don’t let CSKA regain their confidence, as it will be much harder to turn up another level in a very different and more intense atmosphere than the one experienced at the Emirates Stadium. Beyond this round, Atletico Madrid maintained their status as Europa League favourites following a convincing victory in their own first leg matchup.