I was struck by a hint of deja vu this afternoon. Forty-three years ago, almost to the day, I was at Highbury to see Arsenal beat a cracking Benfica side, including the great Eusebio, 6-2 in a pre-season friendly. Nobody expected that degree of victory that day, and Arsenal would go on to surprise and delight in the opening months of that season with their interpretation of total football, made fashionable by the great Ajax side of the era.
Today the new look, and decidedly under-strength Gunners almost repeated the achievement, mastering the Europa League finalists 5-1, and again it has to be said the manner of the victory was as unexpected as it was impressive. Arsenal took to the field minus their holidaying three German World Cup winners, and started with something of a who’s who on the bench comprising, among others, new boys Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, plus Laurent Koscielny, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and Olivier Giroud.
Some idea of the potential strength of the squad was evidenced by the performances of a number of squad players plus new signing Calum Chambers, a right back at Southampton last season, but paired with left-back Nacho Monreal in the centre of the Gunners defence. From the right flank of that defence Hector Bellerin gave an impressive display, getting forward at every opportunity. Behind them Damian Martinez, presumably still third choice goalkeeper following the arrival of David Ospina, produced a string of smart saves as the visitors broke dangerously.
The midfield saw Mathieu Flamini anchoring and thereby allowing attacking freedom to Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky, both of whom showed enormous energy and enthusiasm chasing back as well as probing further forward. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and (at last) Joel Campbell worked the flanks. Campbell looked unfortunate not to get a very early penalty, but his time would come.
Yaya Sanogo got the nod to start as the central striker. A bit of a Marmite figure for the supporter base with his failure to score last season, although his chances were few and far between and usually in high-pressure fixtures against good opposition. Today he gave a hint of what he could become. An early attempt from a Bellerin cross missed the target, but his next four efforts required retrieving from the back of the net. Bellerin and Ramsey combined to set him up for the first in the 25th minute, a simple backheel flick.
Sanogo then combined with Bellerin to set up Campbell for a superb volley and we had doubled our advantage. There followed an astonishing four minute burst either side of the break which saw Sanogo plunder another three goals as Benfica fell apart. Campbell provided the assist for number three after cleverly avoiding the offside trap, Kieran Gibbs set up the pick of Sanogo’s goals, an intricate near-post finish under pressure, before he was gifted an opportunity to start the second-half with another from a parried Moraes save.
The midfield was substituted just before the hour, and from a set piece Arsenal’s lack of height and organisation allowed Gaitan to head home a consolation. Were this not a makeshift back four one might have been inclined to worry more. The players will doubtless go over what happened in the week before a stronger defence lines up against Manchester City at Wembley. A word for new boy Chambers. He’ll have more strenuous tests of his ability than a demoralised Benfica provided after a lively intial burst, but what he did was assured and he must be in the frame to partner Laurent Koscielny at Wembley next week.
There was time for the moment most in attendance came to see. Alexis was intoduced on the left flank for the final seventeen minutes, and showed some wonderful touches. He has undoubted class and will bring pace and trickery to the attack this season. Should Campbell and Sanogo build on today, Podolski and Giroud gain fitness quickly, and Theo Walcott return before long, our attacking options suddenly look much rosier. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t expect us to add a proven goalscorer should one become available, but we look much better stocked than this time last year.
Beforehand I spoke of the need to sit back and take a wider view of the performances this weekend. As a draw or defeat with this starting eleven would not have been a cause for pitchforks and torches, so the impressive win should not provoke too much celebration and expectation. By half-time Benfica had visibly crumbled, and most Premier League opponents will test us more severely. However they were reduced to that level by some astonishing attacking football from Arsenal, and some quality finishing from Campbell and Sanogo. It’s where we would want to be tonight.