This season above all others is going to place a great emphasis on Just Getting The Job Done, and on those terms Arsenal’s Europa League group stage has to go down as a great success.
While generally sauntering through the Premier League with free-flowing giddy ease, the Thursday night assignments have seen greater emphasis on doing just enough and a much-changed yet visibly weary Arsenal did precisely that one more time to secure top spot in Europa League Group A. That was a prize harder won than might have been expected, but one that could be hugely significant.
It has been pointed out often enough but this really is an absurd season that places unreasonable demands on everyone. And if that means you go about winning your Europa League group by winning four games by a single goal then that is absolutely fair enough. This was not a game to live long in the memory, and the last few minutes were undeniably dicey with a pleasingly zesty Zurich side threatening to send Arsenal into the playoff round along with Manchester United.
Ultimately, though, the better side won and Mikel Arteta can tick another task off his pre-World Cup list. In truth the only really memorable moments from the match concerned a couple of Arsenal full-backs. Kieran Tierney’s winning goal was sweetly struck, while Takehiro Tomiyasu being subbed off with an apparent hamstring problem after coming on in the second half makes him the latest player whose World Cup place is in doubt. It’s not news to anyone now, this really is a daft season.
But in a way Tomiyasu’s injury highlights the importance of what Arsenal have managed and what Manchester United did not despite both finishing with 15 points in their groups. While United face two extra potentially teak-tough games in an already gruelling season, Arsenal have now avoided that pitfall. It’s so important. Those were not going to be games it would be possible to coast through with a host of changes as Arsenal did here.
In the short term, the combination of Tierney’s all-round performance (not just his goal) and Tomiyasu’s misfortune will likely give him a Premier League opportunity against Chelsea at the weekend despite Arteta’s fondness for an inverted left-back.
Everything about tonight screamed an Arsenal side trying to walk a tightrope between keeping something in the tank for a huge weekend test and ensuring tonight didn’t go pear-shaped. It was probably more fraught than Arteta would have hoped or expected, but really there is little more to say.
It feels churlish to criticise Arsenal or anyone for a sluggish performance at this specific stage of this specific season. It is also impossible for these players not to now have one eye on the World Cup. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. Ridiculous as it sounds, we are less than three weeks away from the start of that tournament and players are dropping like flies. It must be in the mind of every other player currently set for Qatar, and only more so on nights like this, that have something but not everything riding on the outcome and against a game but limited side Arsenal would expect to beat without getting out of second gear.
The Europa League format is a good one, but that tangible reward for winning the group undoubtedly forced Arsenal into putting more into this game than they would probably have liked. That even a team carrying as much current feelgood momentum as Arsenal look in desperate need of a break is a damning indictment of the schedule. Low-quality games like this one are an inevitable by-product.
And, really, that’s why all that can meaningfully be said about tonight is that the job is done and Arsenal have saved themselves a couple of Thursdays in February. While tonight is mainly about weary relief, the impact on the second half of their season really could be huge.