In this uniquely concertinaed season, matches played every few days, squads in permanent rotation, results are probably all that matter. Though performances remain important, too, and as Arsenal lost focus against opponents who grew in belief, it appeared their minds had drifted to Sunday, and Chelsea. Three matches remain before Arsenal sign off for the World Cup, two in the Premier League, and still being leaders when football turns its focus on Qatar is clearly top priority.
Still, the key objective of reaching the Europa League last 16 and winning their group was achieved, if without much style. Zürich gave Arsenal some late scares and probably plenty of bruises but Kieran Tierney’s first-half goal ended up being enough.
Victory meant avoiding the extra two legs facing a Champions League dropout that Manchester United must fulfil. Ducking Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, Sevilla and extra fatigue in February was a not inconsiderable prize, and Mikel Arteta had picked Gabriel Jesus, despite Sunday’s high noon appointment at Stamford Bridge, as captain for the evening to lead an inexperienced forward line alongside Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah.
Bukayo Saka’s presence on the subs’ bench, and second-half arrival, was relief in this precarious netherworld when any knock can cancel a plane ticket to Qatar. Japan’s Takehrio Tomiyasu, a second-half sub subbed off with what looked a muscle injury, looked the latest sufferer of a hoodoo that this week may have claimed Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell.
“We don’t know,” said Arteta of Tomiyasu. “He felt something and we didn’t want to take any risks. With the amount of games we are playing, it’s part of [it]. It can happen in training, it can happen in games and unfortunately it happened to Tomi.”
With Granit Xhaka’s suspension preventing him from facing his compatriots, Mohamed Elneny, a rare Arsene Wenger remnant, partnered Sambi Lokonga in midfield with Fabio Vieira offering the creativity. The Portuguese youngster played his part in Tierney’s goal, his shot blocked after Ben White’s ball from the byline. Tierney steered the rebound with venom, beyond Zürich keeper Yanick Brecher, the first real shot on goal after a slow start.
Jesus may not have scored since 1 October but he is Arsenal’s true live wire, dictating their tempo with his relentlessness. He was sorely missed after being subbed off just past the hour.
“It does bother him for sure,” said Arteta of his star striker’s barren run. “But what he generates for the team is amazing. Last week he gave three assists. Today he was involved in every action again. The goals will come.”
Without Jesus’s defending from the front, Zürich found life far easier, though also used the rough stuff as their way back in. Zoran Boranijasevic tearing the chest plate of Tierney’s shirt asunder with a cynical grab but somehow escaping a booking was a highlight of their strong-arm tactics. Tierney, late on, took a further hefty whack, but afterwards ¨pronounced it “just a swollen ankle but it will be fine”.
Saka’s arrival in place of Jesus received a huge cheer from the home fans. There was yet louder noise from the away contingent when they briefly believed Adrian Guerrero had equalised, only for him to be called offside. That immediately preceded Tomiyasu’s fateful arrival as he and Martin Ødegaard came on for Vieira and White, the latter having been one of his team’s best performers in overlapping from right-back.
With PSV leading Bodo/Glimt in the other group game, a Zürich equaliser would have been, if not disastrous, then a problematic inconvenience. When Bohdan Vyunnyk, the Ukrainian, came on as sub and flashed a shot wide, Ramsdale launching himself at full stretch, there were collywobbles, shared by Gunners fans and an increasingly agitated Arteta.
“We did not control the game well enough, especially in the second half,” he admitted. “At the end, we were a bit leggy I think.” His team has three matches, nine more days to play out.