Fans were treated to a trip down memory lane on Thursday night as the Gunners took apart Rapid Vienna with a style and panache seldom seen since the departure of Arsene Wenger.
In his pomp, Arsene’s teams would mesmerise with the kind of football that is still held up years later as the gold standard – sinuous attacking play that was all about speed of movement, grace and an unwavering air of brilliance.
Some many great goals across so many unforgettable games.
The Arsenal teams that have followed have, more often than not, failed to come close to the sort of football. We have seen fleeting glimpses of it but nothing that could seriously be called comparable.
However, for 90 minutes on Thursday, as the club welcomed back fans for the first time since March, we were transported to a bygone era, and how fitting it was that the leading actors were the players who started their Arsenal careers when the great Frenchman was still at the helm.
Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah, and Emile Smith-Rowe – Hale End graduates all – would have watched the Wenger sides of the early to mid-naughties and dreamt one day of playing their part, emulating the likes of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri and countless others.
And while they have some way still to go yet, there were shades of the great men throughout the night and especially in Arsenal’s third goal, laid on a plate by Nelson and finished by Nketiah after some wonderful interplay in the middle of the pitch.
And more than just the neat finishing; the pace, urgency, and movement across the 90 minutes was as familiar and evocative as it was enjoyable, a real tribute to the great man and, indeed, a performance made in large part at Hale End, the school of excellence upon which he placed his blueprint.
As much as the players and manager pointed to the return of fans as catalyst for the performance on the night, much more about how it played out was formulated behind the scenes. The fans, I think, were merely the cherry on top.
As a team, we have become increasingly rigid under Mikel Arteta, trading fluidity in an attacking sense for iron-clad discipline and solidity in the defensive third. Given how porous and exposed we had become in the final days of Arsene and under Unai Emery in general, it was a trade-off most Arsenal fans were comfortable with, at least initially.
As results improved, so did the clamour for a little loosening of the shackles but, despite various tweaks and tinkerings, the manager and his team have struggled to get the team firing. Worse than that, our attacking output has worsened to the point of being constipated.
The Europa League has been a release valve for Arsenal in many ways but no Thursday night to date had been anywhere near so good as it was last night. The players showed the sort of guile and craft that has been absent for an age and, on the night at least, that didn’t really come at too great a cost defensively.
It is worth bearing in mind that Rapid Vienna are not world beaters and they were particularly poor on the night but, for all that, they are no amateur outfit and I take nothing away from the quality of our performance. It has to be the blueprint for the majority of our Premier League performances, accepting of course that, sometimes, pragmatism should come before perfection.
However, if Mikel is to ensure this trip down memory lane isn’t short-lived, he must demand more of the same from his players. There has to be discipline, of course, but there has to be freedom, expression, movement, and creativity too.
Here’s to Hale End!