In his haste to avoid two extra Europa League fixtures, Mikel Arteta may now have to bring out the big guns for one more. This was Arsenal’s worst performance of the season by some distance and, while it is hardly time for alarm bells, a wake-up call had been coming.
They never got going against a motivated PSV Eindhoven who were transformed by a masterclass in centre-forward play from the half-time substitute Luuk De Jong and it leaves the visitors’ manager with an unwelcome dilemma.
The subject of tiredness has been a creeping theme in Arsenal’s season, largely because of Arteta’s insistence on fielding strong sides in unremarkable Group A. It had brought them a 100% record up to this point and a draw here would have meant a potential night off against FC Zürich next Thursday. While Arsenal have already qualified for the knockout stage, winning the group would mean they bypass a dicey play-off in February, a round in which Juventus and Barcelona await.
A starting lineup featuring Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard, Granit Xhaka, William Saliba and Aaron Ramsdale should have been strong enough to complete the task. Instead Arteta was obliged to fling on Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Thomas Partey in fruitless pursuit of salvation as their night disintegrated. It did not work and the concern now is that he may have to deploy at least some of them against Zürich, three days before they visit Chelsea.
That Swiss assignment at the Emirates should pose few problems and a win would guarantee top spot. But Arteta must decide how many chances to take at a time when flat second-half performances are becoming a trend. They had flattered to deceive at Bodø/Glimt, Leeds and Southampton; a result like this felt around the corner and it is reasonable to wonder whether, and why, an element of their early-season freshness might be missing.
“It’s the end of a long run and now it’s time to reset and analyze what happened,” Arteta said. “PSV deserved to win, no question, we were nowhere near our level today. We didn’t have the threat and aggression we’ve been playing at and that is worrying.” It was true from kick-off. PSV needed this more, a fact borne out by their exuberant post-match celebrations.
They knew a win could secure them a knockout place if Bodø/Glimt failed to beat Zürich and two late goals from the Swiss side sealed a perfect night. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s players had, save for the schemer Xavi Simons, not impressed in defeat at the Emirates but were greatly improved here. Simons had an early shot saved by Ramsdale, who was deployed due to Matt Turner’s groin injury, while both he and Cody Gakpo had first-half goals chalked off for narrow offsides.
Yet they did not look capable of mounting sustained pressure until De Jong, the 32-year-old who was scoring in La Liga for Barcelona last season, came on and made everything stick. PSV began the second period at speed but thought they had squandered a chance when Gakpo raced through and shot across goal, the ball running out of play on the far side.
The danger looked to have passed but Eddie Nketiah, who could learn numerous things from De Jong on this evidence, was beaten too easily to Kieran Tierney’s throw-in up the line and Arsenal were now in trouble again. De Jong rolled Rob Holding too easily outside the area and was able to tee up Joey Veerman, arriving on the run, for a swept first-time finish that cranked up an already feverish atmosphere.
“The moment something went wrong we just went down and didn’t know how to react,” Arteta said. The final blow was applied eight minutes later and it was a sobering moment for Ramsdale in particular. He missed his punch from Gakpo’s left-sided corner, Holding having failed to connect when jumping alongside him, and the ball could ping off a more determined De Jong’s head into the vacant goal.
Arsenal could point to smart saves demanded of Walter Benítez by Nketiah, once early on and again towards the end, and a wayward volley by Martinelli before the interval. But they were sluggish with their 70% share of possession and lax in the duels when out of it; there was no point dressing up their display as anything better and Arteta must now cajole them into finishing the job next week.
“They have been exceptionally good and playing at a level that probably no one expected,” he said. “Now it’s down to me to get the best out of them.”