PSV vim and vigour leave weary, careful Arsenal happy none of it really mattered

Dave Tickner
Eddie Nketiah gives Arsenal the lead at PSV
Eddie Nketiah gives Arsenal the lead at PSV

The good news for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta was that this game didn’t really matter. But hopes that this might be a gentle stroll around Eindhoven for the group winners against the group runners-up in a bit of light, low-key relief as the relentless festive programme spins into life proved optimistic.

Thank heavens Arsenal had done enough to win the group before tonight, because on the basis of this game – and that all-conquering Eredivisie form – playing PSV in a full-blooded encounter at this stage of the season would have involved an awful lot of effort the Gunners could absolutely do without.

We’re not fans of the early kick-off on Champions League nights. It gives an altogether Europa Thursday flavour to proceedings that has no business being there on a Big Cup Tuesday. That Europa flavour threatened to be all-encompassing for a game like this, with two teams whose own recent European pedigree is more Vase than Cup and with so little riding on the outcome.

Never quite panned out like that, though, because PSV simply refused to allow it. Both teams made their changes, but Arteta’s current shortages limited what he could do, and with PSV enormously up for continuing their own recent form and making amends for a rare off-day on the opening matchday at the Emirates. Arsenal’s fringe players did… largely okay.

Picking Cedric Soares over one of the enormously promising youngsters Arteta brought along for the ride here was slightly disappointing and not exactly a proactive choice, but it was probably a pragmatic one. PSV’s attacking football is thrilling to watch and it could have been a brutal experience for a younger player. It’s unlikely Cedric will end January still an Arsenal player but he did at least take the opportunity here to remind potential suitors that he remains a competent and experience campaigner. Plenty of teams could do worse.

Eddie Nketiah’s first Champions League goal came slightly against the run of play but was a thing of beauty; instant control and precise finish arrowed in off the base of the post. It was undoubtedly the highlight of the night for Arsenal on a night that ended with them having to deploy both Martin Odegaard and Declan Rice to regain some semblance of control against a side that sensed a chance of victory after deservedly drawing level with a trademark quick break and a finish from Yorbe Vertessen that was, if anything, even better than Nketiah’s as he arced it beyond Aaron Ramsdale and in off the same post the Arsenal man had unerringly found just before the break.

Ramsdale was another Arsenal fringe player to do absolutely fine. The goal was unstoppable and, for all PSV’s eye-catching football, the Arsenal keeper had relatively little else to do and what there was he did with relentless adequacy.

There was a keen sense in the way Arsenal approached the game after PSV’s unquestionably merited equaliser that this mattered more than mere tables and qualification would suggest. A fascinating if moot thought that flitted into the mind often was how different Arsenal’s side might have looked had they won rather than lost at Villa three days earlier. Momentum is a tricky, fickle creature and Arteta was clearly and understandably unwilling to take too many chances with it. Back-to-back defeats – even if one were in this theoretically dead rubber – is not what’s required heading into the fun-filled Busy Festive Period.

For PSV, with second place in this group very much the top end of their pre-tournament ambitions and the Eredivisie title pretty much in the bag already, this game was one to be approached with full-blown enthusiasm. It showed. For Arsenal, there was a balance to be found. It was more important than it might have been, but still less important than just about every other game the Gunners will play in the weeks ahead.

It produced a curious but distinctly watchable spectacle. PSV at full throttle, Arsenal trying and just about finding the precise level of commitment and effort required to keep them at bay without overextending anyone.

There remained until the very end a nagging feeling that this wasn’t really very good from Arsenal. But it also wasn’t bad. It was very professional, very careful and ultimately a thorough vindication of taking care of business before matchday six. Vague feelings of frustration at a low-key away draw after you’ve won your group are a luxury. Arsenal have worked hard to get to such a position, might as well enjoy it.