Kai Havertz was very meh, then very good, to provide the strongest evidence yet that Mikel Arteta is putting a square peg in a round hole. Oh, and Arsenal were brilliant.
The big story ahead of the game was David Raya’s inclusion over Aaron Ramsdale, and just in case the less perceptive of the Emirates faithful had failed to notice, Mikel Arteta laboured the point by instructing Gabriel Jesus to pass the ball straight back to the goalkeeper from kick-off. That will probably still be the story, but shouldn’t. Arsenal were a delight.
It was as if PSV had never seen Arsenal play. In fact it was like Peter Bosz had set his side up in such a way to provide the Gunners with a confidence boost ahead of the north London derby.
The Eredivisie side operated a press which was neither here nor there. They gave Martin Odegaard time on the ball to pick passes wide and in behind. They failed to double-up on Bukayo Saka. As a result, Arsenal had a grand ol’ time on their return to the Champions League.
Saka opened the scoring before setting up Leandro Trossard, who then turned provider for Gabriel Jesus in a nigh-on perfect first half from Arsenal.
Trossard’s curled finish from the edge of the box kissed the post on its way in and Jesus’ first touch was as delightful as his strike was fierce into the far corner. Those two were on fire; Saka always is.
Declan Rice roamed in midfield and drove from it in much the same excellent style he has done so far this season, disguising passes into the feet of Odegaard, who twisted, turned and slipped passes into the seemingly endless supply of players free from opposition pressure in front of him.
The only member of the front six for whom things still didn’t quite click was Kai Havertz, who’s thus far struggled to settle since his eyebrow-raising summer move from Chelsea. Not for the want of trying – lack of effort is never a criticism that could be aimed his way, even in the darkest of Stamford Bridge days.
It’s not as though he was bad. It’s certainly the game after which many Arsenal fans will claim he was really good – not because he was actually that good for the vast majority of it but because they’re desperate for their big-money signing to prove he’s worth the outlay and he did show what he’s capable of late in the game.
From midfield he used the ball reasonably well and made his customary breaks in behind – most of which were ignored. But while his fellow attacking teammates shone, with clear moments of brilliance set for a highlights reel, Havertz’s performance was one to shrug your shoulders at.
The worry for Arsenal fans will be that if he can’t excel in a game like this, when there is so much space for him to operate and next to no pressure on the ball, when will they see the best of him? The last 20 minutes provided a good indication.
He improved hugely after Jesus was taken off and he moved into the No.9 position that he made his – more through default than anything else – at Chelsea. He did some fine work in the build-up to Odegaard’s second-half bullet into the corner to wrap things up for Arsenal, and in general looked far more comfortable with his back to goal, dropping off the centre-backs and linking the play with his typically deft touches.
The classic response to a forward player in stuttering form is to suggest they need a goal and all will be well. But the one very good chance Havertz had he blazed over the bar, which was in stark contrast to the brilliance of Jesus’ finish.
That will be the problem for Havertz, who was very easy on the eye operating in the position he wasn’t bought to play in, having again struggled in the role Arteta thought he could – and still hopes – he can mould him into.