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Arsenal 1 - RC Lens 2 match report: the sky ISN’T falling

The Gunners didn’t play very well. RC Lens played exceptionally well.

RC Lens v Arsenal FC: Group B - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Arsenal suffered their first loss of the season, losing 2-1 to a resolute RC Lens side. The defeat sees them drop to second in Group B rather than take firm command. It still just doesn’t look right for the Gunners so far this year. The performances against Bournemouth, PSV, and Manchester United were excellent, but there have been some real stinkers, too. And the showing against RC Lens definitely falls into the “smelly” category.

It’s weird. With Arsenal’s up and down (more down than up) form this season, it felt like a particularly flat performance was coming sooner rather than later. But at the same time, I’m not too worried about the loss on the evening. It took an off night from the Gunners and exceptionally good one from RC Lens in their first Champions League match at home in two decades for it not to go our way. And Arsenal were a few inches on a Takehiro Tomiyasu shot, multiple heroic blocks, and two questionable pieces of defending from getting something on the evening.

To be fair to RC Lens, they did really well on their goals, too — excellent attacking moves and tremendous finishes. But the first came from an abysmal giveaway from David Raya and Arsenal’s players being nowhere to be found to defend the resulting attack. Both of those things shouldn’t happen.

Mikel Arteta handed the no. 1 keeper job to David Raya presumably because of his distribution. So far, he hasn’t noticeably out-shined Aaron Ramsdale in that regard.

On the second goal, Oleksandr Zinchenko was...well I don’t know what he was doing. Kai Havertz was a step late tracking his man, too. And then none of the three Arsenal defenders in the box looked over their shoulder to pick up the late-arriving run, even though none of them were marking, well, anything other than a patch of grass.

Zinchenko was particularly poor on the evening, far too loose in possession and repeatedly gave the ball away cheaply in the middle third. His individual stats suggest he had a pretty good outing. But he didn’t pass the eye-test, at least for me.

The Ukrainian wasn’t alone, however. Other than Declan Rice, who was good not great, pretty much everybody in an Arsenal jersey was average to poor. Martin Ødegaard was basically man-marked out of the match, and nobody else stepped up — either to fill the spaces vacated by Ødegaard dragging his man all over the pitch or to replace his usual attacking contribution.

I don’t want to take too much away from the home side. They were excellent, clearly buoyed by the fantastic support in their ground. They won the majority of the duels and looked faster and more energized than Arsenal. Brice Samba was fantastic in net. Centerback Kevin Danso played really well against Gabriel Jesus. Usually, the Brazilian is able to use his low center of gravity and powerful legs to knock defenders off their stride and create space. Danso out-muscled him nearly every time. Gabriel Jesus’ finish

Everybody both inside the club and out will be holding their breath over Bukayo Saka’s status for the match against Manchester City on Sunday. The Arsenal winger was forced off with what appeared to be a hamstring injury after 34 minutes. The Gunners attack looked impotent without him on the pitch. And with Gabriel Martinelli’s status up in the air as well, Arsenal cannot afford to have both of their world-class, spark-plug wingers miss out. It turns out you don’t look nearly as good when you’re best attacking players aren’t on the pitch. Shocking, right?

Arsenal can put everything right by beating Manchester City on Sunday. A draw wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either. A loss, especially after a disappointing outing in the Champions League, and heading into an international break, would be tough to stomach.