After cruising past PSV Eindhoven in the first match of their return to the top tier of European football, Arsenal might have been forgiven for thinking that the Champions League was far easier, and far more enjoyable, than they remembered from all those years ago. Those notions, it is safe to say, have now been disabused.
A chastening night in France will have reminded Arsenal’s players and supporters that this competition truly is the ultimate test in club football. The intensity of the occasion, the ferocity of the opponent, the awkwardness of the entire trip: it all played a part as Mikel Arteta’s side suffered their first defeat of the campaign.
Arsenal had been grounded by a storm on Monday, with the players forced to wait for five hours at Luton Airport, and they struggled to take flight in the face of a different sort of storm here. Lens dialled up the intensity and rattled Arteta’s side in a way that few other teams have managed in the past year, despite Gabriel Jesus giving his team an early lead.
Gabriel Jesus with a clinical finish for Arsenal! 🎯
Fantastic from the Brazilian ✨ pic.twitter.com/oaZ7VrsOX6
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) October 3, 2023
As concerning as the disjointed performance was an injury to Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s most effective attacker, just a few days before their meeting with Manchester City. Saka has been struggling with knock after knock in recent matches and this latest one, which appeared to take place with no opponent around him, looks to be the most concerning of all.
“He tried to backheel a ball in the first half and felt something muscular,” said Arteta of Saka. “It was big enough not to allow him to continue to play the game. That is a worry for us.”
It was the third game in a row in which Saka went down with an injury, and the third game in a row in which he was subsequently removed from the pitch. The young winger’s resilience has been unquestionable in recent seasons but it is now becoming increasingly fair to ask whether all those minutes, and all those kicks from defenders, are taking their toll.
Arteta, though, insisted that the injury was not related to the issues that Saka experienced against Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth. “It was a knock that he had the other day and he was perfectly fine [to play against Lens],” said the Arsenal manager. Would Saka be fit to face City? “I have no clue,” Arteta replied.
The race is now on for Saka, then, but there are other issues that Arteta must also address. The lack of fluidity and spark in his attack, especially in the second half, was as unusual as it was alarming. There was also a first significant error by goalkeeper David Raya, who allowed Lens back into the game with a poor clearance before the break.
Arteta had no interest in using Monday’s travel delays as an excuse, although it was also clear that this was not the night for tired and heavy legs. Lens had not hosted a Champions League match in 21 years and their notoriously boisterous supporters, who outnumber the population of the city, were in an intimidating mood.
The flares and smoke-bombs were lit before kick-off, and the Stade Bollaert-Delelis was literally shaking when the first ball was struck. It is an especially ferocious venue because the most fervent supporters are located on the side of the pitch, rather than behind one of the goals, and their intensity seemed to inspire the rest of the ground as well as the players.
“Obviously the atmosphere is a big energy booster for them,” said Arteta. “We knew that. I have known since I played in this country that it is one of the best in the country, or the best. In a lot of moments we quietened the crowd but we gave them life in those two situations when we conceded the goals.”
The best way to deflate the occasion, of course, was to score the opening goal. And when Saka intercepted a loose pass and found Jesus, who finished superbly into the corner, it briefly seemed as if one match had ended and another had begun.
Arsenal’s possession-based approach always creates risks, though, and Raya soon reignited the occasion. Lens reacted quickly to his poor clearance, with the ball eventually falling to Adrien Thomasson on the edge of the box. The subsequent strike, curled on the bounce, was glorious in its execution.
There were still opportunities for Arteta’s side in the second half, with Leandro Trossard and Takehiro Tomiyasu both going close, but there was also no real sense of surprise when Lens took the lead. Przemysław Frankowski found space down Arsenal’s left, and his cross was expertly converted by Elye Wahi, the French side’s star striker. West Ham showed interest in Wahi this summer and this was a finish of genuine class from the 20-year-old.
For Arsenal it was all too frantic and fevered, despite the best attempts of Declan Rice to calm his side down. By the end they had resorted to launching long balls towards the box, in a desperate search for an equaliser that never seemed likely to materialise.