Wednesday was one of the rare occasions when I went to watch the Arsenal and knew virtually nothing about our opponents. While a win was expected, this was a team that caused Liverpool problems previously in Europe and were not just representing themselves as a club, but Bulgarian football as a whole. In the first half, Ludogorets gave a good account of themselves, before everything fell apart and Arsenal turned on the style to romp home 6-0.
Given the issues Arsenal have had against some smaller teams in the group stages in recent seasons, it was a nice change and thoroughly enjoyable to see Arsenal be so ruthless and ramp up the goal difference, which could be important should PSG match Arsenal point-for-point for the rest of the group stage.
It would have been easy for Ludogorets to turn up on Wednesday and look to put every player behind the ball and soak up pressure. Refreshingly, they tried to play the ball on the floor and looked to get men forward when the opportunities arose. This did come with its pitfalls as somewhat naively, the Bulgarians did then leave quite a bit of space behind their back four, which was regularly exploited by Arsenal throughout the evening.
In light of the massive over-hyping of Liverpool’s Premier League game with Manchester United on Monday, and the subsequent snooze-fest that followed, it is really nice to be in the position at the moment of knowing that Arsenal are likely to be entertaining in almost every game. The team aren’t just playing efficiently and winning football matches, they’re doing it with style, swagger and moments of individual and collective brilliance. There can be few arguments that on current form, Arsenal are the team to watch at the moment if you’re a fan of the game and want to see exciting football.
That’s why the performance in the first half was ever so slightly disappointing. Arsene Wenger made a few changes, most notably with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain getting a chance on the left in place of Alex Iwobi, and that changed the dynamic of the side a bit. It was also a credit to Ludogorets that they looked to take the game to Gunners and called David Ospina into a few bits of action including some smart sweeping off his line win the ball at the feet of the centre-forward.
But even though the collective wasn’t quite at its best in the first half, the confidence flowing through certain players meant some indiviual excellence from Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott gave the Gunners a control on the game with two brilliant goals. The first came from the Chilean as the Ludogorets high-line was caught out. Alexis raced down the left into the box, cut back to leave the covering defender on his back-side before deftly lobbing the ball into the far corner. It was audacious and, dare I even make the comparison, the sort of goal Dennis Bergkamp or Robert Pires might have scored.
Just before half-time, after a couple of edgy moments, Theo Walcott grabbed the initiative and fired Arsenal into a 2-0 lead. Found in space 25 yards from goal by Mesut Ozil, he unleashed a curling strike that confused the keeper and flew into the net. There’s no way that Walcott would have even taken a shot on from that distance out in the last few seasons, and while the goalkeeping was slightly suspect for the goal, it was a well-struck effort from Walcott and showed a completely new dimension to his game. He’s not a player associated with driving a team forward when they aren’t playing well, so it was a measure of how good he’s feeling to see him step up with a brilliant individual goal.
The second goal effectively killed off any hope for the Bulgarians, despite their positive performance, and having got the cushion, Arsenal sensed the chance to run riot and surge through the years. Less than a minute into the second half, Kieran Gibbs’ cut-back wasn’t cleared and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain clinically dispatched the ball into the bottom corner from 12 yards.
It was four soon afterwards as the game opened up. Laurent Koscielny won an excellent tackle on the edge of his area, giving Santi Cazorla time to chip a perfect pass over the defence for Mesut Ozil to run onto, majestically control and slide past the goalkeeper when one-on-one.
At 4-0, and an important league game to come three days later, it was the ideal team for Arsene Wenger to take off key players and give others in the squad a needed run-out. Mohamed Elneny came on and was typically tidy in midfield, while Lucas Perez joined the front four and turned the provider with the assists for the fifth and sixth goals.
With Cazorla, Walcott and Alexis withdrawn to keep them fresh for the weekend, I was slightly surprised Mesut Ozil wasn’t removed early from the action with the game won. But I’m glad he was given a full game as the King of assists confirmed his growing prowess in front of goal. His assist for Theo Walcott’s goal in the first half was, remarkably, his first of the season, but by the end of his night’s work, he’d boosted his goal tally for the campaign to six.
Ludogorets’ high defensive line was punished again as Ozil was able to use his intelligent reading of the play and his deceptively quick pace to get into finishing positions with Lucas Perez slotting in up front to play the centre-forward role in a similar way to Alexis by being happy to run the channels, pull defenders around with his movement and create space for midfield runners such as Ozil.
The German’s second came from Perez moving left, playing the ball across the box and Ozil intentionally bouncing the ball into the ground and over the goalkeeper into the net. His first professional hat-trick was then secured as Perez came from the right to clip a pass into the area, where Ozil allowed the ball to go across his body before volleying past the keeper.
With Ozil as the chief orchestrator of a team playing this well, you just have to enjoy the football. It’s easy to get caught up as a football fan about what each game means in the context of the season and what it means for chances of a trophy at the end of it, but sometimes you just have to forget all of that and enjoy what is on offer in front of you. In the grand scheme of things, a fairly comprehensive win against Ludogorets wasn’t a huge surprise and won’t be especially telling come the shake-up for trophies in May, but my goodness it was good fun and brilliant entertainment. Obviously I hope the great stuff Arsenal are playing keeps going and does lead to something tangible later in the campaign, but at the moment it worth just enjoying each game as it comes and savouring getting to see Mesut Ozil et al near the peak of their powers.