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Arsenal’s Return To The Champions League Was Typically Stylish

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20: Martin Oedegaard of Arsenal celebrates after scoring the team's fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League match between Arsenal FC and PSV Eindhoven at Emirates Stadium on September 20, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Before Wednesday night, Arsenal's most recent Champions League outing was a two-part, 10-2 beheading at the hands of Bayern Munich. Half of the outfield starters who played in the second leg are now retired, and only one member of that 2016-17 squad (Mohamed Elneny) is still on the team. Arsene Wenger was still managing the team, and both Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka were more than a year away from their senior debuts. Current Arsenal captain Martin Ødegaard was only just beginning the first of his many loans away from Real Madrid. The Wenger era of stylish, doomed Arsenal teams charming European audiences was ending slowly, and then all at once.

Seven years later, following two heartbreaking fifth-place Premier League finishes, the entire tenure of Unai Emery, and one EPL title push that fell just short, Arsenal finally took part once again in the world's premier club soccer competition, rising to the occasion on Wednesday with a dazzling 4-0 win over PSV. The wait for a night like this was as painful as the redemption was sweet, and Arsenal put together their most forceful, convincing game of the young season. The Dutch side currently leads the Eredivisie; they have not dropped a match since a February Europa League loss to Sevilla, but they were hardly allowed to kick the ball against Arsenal. This was as thorough a victory as you will see (in a match between two non-bullshit teams) in the competition all year.

Fittingly, Saka scored the first goal of the night. No player has embodied the club's rebirth under Mikel Arteta better than Saka, a homegrown genius who has been consistently excellent since breaking into the first team. He first arrived on the scene during a disaster season, at left back of all places, and his growth from over-versatile youngster into attacking centerpiece has coincided with Arsenal's return to form. Saka had two goals and earned Man of the Match in his World Cup debut, and notched a goal, a pair of assists, and another MOTM in his first Europa League start. It was fitting that he scored the first goal of the match in his Champions League debut.

With a rapturous home crowd signing them onward in typically soggy conditions, Arsenal never once let their opponents breathe. Saka and Leandro Trossard combined for a riff on their goal against Everton last weekend, Gabriel Jesus scored a banger of his own in his first start for the club this season, and Ødegaard capped off a MOTM performance with a slick left-footed goal in the second half. Emile Smith Rowe got on the pitch, new keeper David Raya hit some passes, William Saliba was dancing on guys—it was everything anyone could have wanted from the Champions League's return to the Emirates.

For decades, Arsenal typified a certain style: a beautifully bold sort of soccer that earned them millions of admirers, thousands of critics, and zero European trophies in the Champions League era. The stylishness is not the point—Arsenal obviously want to win the competition and spent the summer loading up on quality depth so they could compete on two fronts for the first time in the Arteta era—but it does matter, to me. It feels extra satisfying that Arsenal is not just back, but are back in this particular way.

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