Arsenal tasted defeat for the first time this season, going down 2-1 to Lens in the Champions League last night.
Mikel Arteta made a couple of changes to the side that beat Bournemouth with Takehiro Tomiyasu and Leandro Trossard coming in for Ben White and Eddie Nketiah. That meant Gabriel Jesus starting up front, and Bukayo Saka starting after what the manager described as a ‘big knock’ on Saturday.
Lens set the tone with a couple of dangerous attacking moments early on, but a mistake at the back allowed us to open the scoring. Saka pounced, fed Jesus, and his finish into the corner of the net was excellent. After that there was a chance for Kai Havertz from an excellent Oleksandr Zinchenko pass, but the keeper made a very good save.
Shortly after that Lens were level, and it came from a wayward David Raya pass meant for Tomiyasu but which was intercepted. I think the TV analysis about how this was handball was wide of the mark for me, I’d have been furious if that had been given against us. But Lens still had plenty to do, the control and lay-off from Elye Wahi was excellent and the finish from Adrien Thomasson was unerring. A brilliant goal, and much like ours stemming from one moment of slight carelessness – and at this level and you often get punished for that.
If that took some of the wind out of our sails, the sight of Saka sitting down and then gesturing to what looked like his hamstring certainly did the rest. Afterwards, Arteta insisted it wasn’t anything to do with previous knocks, saying:
He was perfectly fine. He was really looking forward to play. It wasn’t an action, it was a backheel that can produce that type of injury. Let’s see what the extent of it is.
Obviously I’m not physio, and the manager and the medical staff have much greater knowledge/info about players than I do, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that after limping off in almost every game in recent weeks, something like this might be related. You’re sore somewhere, you overcompensate somewhere else, and it leads to potential injury. Of course it could just be random bad luck, but this feels like one that has been coming for Saka.
And look, I completely understand why a manager picks a player as good as he is as often as he does. I suspect any other man in charge of this club would do the same, because in a tight game like this, he is a potential difference maker. So far this season he is averaging a goal involvement every single game, and maybe he could have produced a moment of quality to swing things back in our favour. But a manager also has to think about the bigger picture, and with Man City on the horizon this weekend, could he have been more cautious for this one?
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and the drop-off between Saka and Fabio Vieira was clear when the Portuguese came on and struggled to make any kind of impact from the right hand side. Still, I suspect Arteta may have some regrets in the cold light of day. We had a very good chance to go ahead early in the second half but Trossard failed to make good contact, allowing the keeper to save.
I also think Lens were good. I saw some people dismissively talking about them as the 15th best side in France which, frankly, is bollocks. If you’re going off this season’s league table at this early stage, you might be able to say that, but it doesn’t make it true. They finished second last season, just a point off PSG. That’s the team we played last night. I thought they were very good technically, extremely well drilled, and they played with a physicality that I think we struggled with a bit. There was always a little something left on an Arsenal player in every challenge, and it made it tough for us to find our rhythm.
Declan Rice tried his best to drive us up the pitch, probably our stand-out player on the night, but the home side scored another very good goal. There was too much room down the right for the cross, and William Saliba – who had otherwise been excellent as usual – just took his eye off Wahi as the ball came in. The finish was brilliant, to be fair, but defensively we could have done better.
That goal came moments after Tomiyasu had almost put us ahead, meeting a corner with a left footed shot that hit the keeper. Arteta made changes after their goal, Smith Rowe coming on for Havertz who struggled again to make an impact in midfield, while Reiss Nelson and Ben White came on for Zinchenko and Trossard. Lens sat deep, invited us to find a way through, and it was very tough to do it. We just didn’t seem sharp enough with our movement, almost everything went through Rice in central areas, and the creativity we needed wasn’t quite there.
Late on Nelson had a chance which was stopped by brilliant defending, Smith Rowe was effective again off the bench drawing a couple of saves from the keeper, but that was about it. Another day, one of those Tomiyasu or Nelson chances goes in, and I think a draw would have been a result neither team could argue with. But they didn’t, Lens took all three points, and there’s plenty for the manager to think about.
Afterwards, Arteta rued the missed chances, saying:
The difference was in the boxes, we had four or five big chances and didn’t put them away, and we didn’t defend the boxes well enough. It’s true that there were moments in the second half we struggled to be more a threat in the final third, and attack certain spaces, otherwise they defend those numbers really good and that’s something to take for the next game.
I don’t think he’s too far wrong there, to be honest. We definitely had moments where a bit more conviction could have swayed the game in our favour, but there was something missing from our overall performance. As I said above, I think you have to give credit to Lens who played well and took plenty from what looked like a great atmosphere, and we’ll have to do better next time out when we’re away at Sevilla towards the end of the month.
Now, attention turns to City, and we’ll remain on tenterhooks when it comes to Saka. If it’s a hamstring, or a muscle strain as it appeared to be, he’s got to be a big doubt for that one, but let’s see.
For more on this game, and all the rest – join us a bit later for an Arsecast, which we should have for you before lunch.
For now, take it easy.