Arsenal

Why not Arsenal? Mikel Arteta’s side are proving that they are serious contenders to win the Champions League

Why not Arsenal? Set aside those five words that discount almost any formative Champions League challenger — Manchester City are still here — and the arguments against Mikel Arteta’s side being a serious contender wash away.

Inexperience does not seem to be hampering Bukayo Saka, the man with more goal contributions than any player in this group stage, nor Gabriel Martinelli, Declan Rice, David Raya and William Saliba. Arsenal have been hit hard with injuries in midfield and defense and yet in a 6-0 win over Lens decided long before the interval they were still able to call on Ben White, Jakub Kiwior and Champions League winner Jorginho.

The goals may not have been flowing as freely as hoped in the Premier League but in Europe they are level with City and Atletico Madrid at the top of the scoring table, 15 to their name from five games. Their goal difference of plus-12 is the best in the competition, their defense the sort that celebrates last minute tackles like Gabriel’s with the same gusto they did each of their six goals.

“When the team has that body language, living every action and every game the way we do, good things are going to come,” said Mikel Arteta.

Whether those include a Champions League title, the great missing piece of the Emirates Stadium trophy room, remains unknowable for now but the questions one might have had over them before the tournament began have been answered to the best of Arsenal’s abilities.

Their group has hardly been the most formidable the Champions League has to offer but what do the very best do in such circumstances? They sweep the board. The 2-1 defeat in Lens back on Matchday 2 has the look of an aberration now, a night when an opponent inspired by a raucous atmosphere on an historic night took their chances and Arsenal spurned theirs.

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Fielding the front five Arteta would have envisaged as his first choice at the start of the season — Kai Havertz, Martin Odegaard, Martinelli, Saka and Gabriel Jesus — the Gunners were electric from the outset, racing into a four-goal lead in the first 27 minutes. By the interval all of the fluid, fast-moving quintet had a goal of their own, Jorginho added a sixth from the penalty spot late on, the eighth different scorer from Arsenal’s last 14 players. Should any of the knockout stages be decided from 12 yards out, there will be few better prepared teams.

Arteta would point to game state as the key explanation for the six goals Arsenal ran up as opposed to the 89-minute wait for one against Brentford on Saturday (it may also be the case that a mid-table Premier League side is simply that bit better than even the sixth best in Ligue 1). Then again the manager is not one to ladle praise on individuals. Even he has conceded in the past, though, that Jesus is the man who raises Arsenal’s ceiling to greater heights.

Back to something approaching his stride in his third game post-hamstring injury, Jesus’ movement and elegance made Arsenal sing. In tight spaces, he always managed to wriggle into positions to play a pass or take a shot. Once he had his fourth goal in as many Champions League games, he was more than prepared to turn provider, having already assisted Havertz for the opener. Here is a No. 9 who understands he can do much more for the team than simply put the ball in the net.

“I know what are my qualities and I know what I can bring to the team,” said Jesus. “I can score and I can also help with other things, like opening spaces. But the only people who can see it are those who watch the game and understand. Those who don’t understand will say that, ‘Oh he didn’t score today’ but maybe I run and open space for someone.

“Let’s be honest, I don’t miss a lot of chances,” Jesus added, with the air of a man who is not inclined to discuss his historic underperformance against expected goals. “I think it is not about, ‘He doesn’t know how to score.’ Sometimes I have to be more in the box, that is the one thing I am working on. Tonight I was more in the box.”

Jesus returned to London after Brazil’s defeat to Argentina with something of a bee in his bonnet. He had said that scoring goals was “not his strongest point”. That may well be the case but only because Jesus offers so much more, from pressing to passing via hold-up play and space creation.

People don’t understand sometimes and people took it out of context and said: ‘Gabi, his strong point isn’t scoring.’ I said this, but not in that way. I have other qualities as well, but I can score guys! I know I am not scoring every game, it’s not easy,” he said.

“Sometimes people just go to the result and see who scored, they don’t see the game. I understand my game. Obviously I want to score every game, if it’s possible a hat-trick! But that’s not the reality.”

The reality is that Arsenal with a fully fit and firing Jesus become even more of a force to be reckoned with. Such a statement is no less true of so many of his team mates. Saka has breezed through the Champions League with maturity beyond his years, just the same as he has every other milestone in his burgeoning career. With Saliba in the side, the highest of lines feels as secure as Fort Knox.

As for Rice, his consistency since his £105 million move has been breathtaking. It is hard to think of a game where he was anything less than excellent, Arteta taking particular pains to praise “the decision making all the time, then the timing he has to win the ball back and the speed he plays with when the ball is around him.” Even in a game that looked as straightforward as this, there were interceptions and tackles from Arsenal’s midfield anchor that turned potential Lens breakouts into further opportunities to exert more pressure in the final third.

“What’s it like having Rice next to me? It’s brilliant,” said Odegaard, who increasingly plays next to the England international when Arsenal form their defensive shape.

From that vantage point, he can appreciate as well as anyone how beneficial the club record signing has been for his team mates.

“I think he’s been amazing since he came here. Every game he’s showing his qualities. He’s a great player, a great guy, so a great addition to the squad,” the Norwegian said.

The ingredients then are all accounted for. What can stop Arsenal? They and Arteta have an indifferent record in two-legged knockout football, though it has to be said that the Europa League encourages a particular level of experimentation in Premier League managers that won’t happen at the business end of the Champions League. This is still not a team that has not faced off against a European big beast in a long time. Then again if they can hold their own against Manchester City and emerge victorious, as they did in October, surely they can do the same at least once against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, the only other teams that bookmakers favor over the Gunners.

“Arsenal can go and face strong teams, playing good,” said Jesus. “That is enough to believe. First we have to believe and then go there and try to win the games. When we get in the final month of the season, we will see if they are there.”

The implication is clear. Jesus expects to still be standing come the business end of this competition. Given what Arsenal have shown so far, you’d be inclined to believe him.

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