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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Dan Kilpatrick

Arsenal make Champions League statement with front six unleashed but tougher tests await

Top of the Premier League after 13 games and group winners in the Champions League in just five, Arsenal continue to show real promise this season.

While their domestic form has been more attritional than attractive, however, Arsenal have largely been exhilarating in Europe, and Wednesday night’s thrashing of Lens was the statement performance Mikel Arteta had called for before the game.

Arsenal had the match wrapped up after 23 minutes, when Bukayo Saka scored their third, and led 5-0 at the interval through five different scorers.

In the League, they are developing a habit of narrow victories — leading Jamie Carragher this week to claim they would not win the title unless they start scoring more — but Arsenal are prolific in Europe and Wednesday night added to a sense that Arteta’s side are well-suited to Champions League football.

Perhaps the free-scoring Arsenal that Carragher wants to see will be mainly reserved for the more open expanses of the European game. Admittedly, their group looked kind on paper and Arsenal have been helped through to the knockouts by some obliging opponents.

Like PSV Eindhoven and Sevilla before them, Lens played at the Emirates like a side who had not watched a single minute of their hosts labouring to break down deep defences in the Premier League, the visitors pushing high and paying an inevitable price.

Kai Havertz — who made it two goals in as many games with a poacher’s finish to kickstart the rampage — Gabriel Jesus and Saka all scored with relative ease before fine flourishes by Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard. Jorginho added a late sixth from the penalty spot, his first Arsenal goal.

Arsenal put Lens to the sword 6-0 in the Champions League on Wednesday night (AFP via Getty Images)

Barring a surprise slip-up in France, Arsenal are making light work of their return to this level, and next month’s visit to PSV is now a dead-rubber and a chance for Arteta to rotate his squad.

The true tests in this competition now lie ahead. Topping the group ensures they will avoid Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and the other foreign group winners in the last-16, but no opponents in the knockouts will be as naive as Lens, PSV or Sevilla.

More encouragingly, however, few teams still in the competition will pack their defence and employ a low block, as so many of Arsenal’s domestic opponents now do, so Arteta’s should still have a more preferable “game state”, as the Spaniard described it, to exploit in the knockouts.

Arteta can also take huge comfort from the way his young side have taken to this level. It is now easy to forget that Arsenal came into this season’s Champions League on the back of a five-year absence and with less than half the squad experienced in the competition.

There was no guarantee the likes of Saka and Martinelli would be so quick to find their feet, but the wingers were outstanding again on Wednesday night. Saka set up Jesus’s cool finish before scoring what Arteta described as “an ugly goal” when Martinelli’s shot was parried into his knee from close range by keeper Brice Samba.

The England wide-man is only the third player after Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez to both score and assist in three consecutive Champions League home games, and if he can keep up this level of form, Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham may have a genuine challenger as the deadliest Englishman in the knockouts.

"Arteta can take huge comfort from the way his young side have taken to this level"

Martinelli, too, was excellent, scoring arguably the pick of the goals with a fine curling effort. It was arguably only bettered by Odegaard’s sumptuous volley, which came from a fine cross from Takehiro Tomiyasu, who was withdrawn at the interval with two assists.

It helped that Arteta was able to field his strongest XI on paper, with the front six of Declan Rice, Odegaard, Havertz, Martinelli, Saka and Jesus starting together for the first time. It made for a perfectly-balanced side and, as good as they were in possession, their furious work-rate is also a huge asset at this level.

Arsene Wenger’s Gunners side routinely made light work of the group stage before crumbling in knockouts, and memories of their most recent last-16 Champions League tie — the 10-2 humiliation by Bayern — may linger when they resume the competition.

Arteta, of course, believes his own side is built differently, and the early evidence supports this view. We will not find out if he is right until the serious business of the knockouts begins.

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