Arsène Wenger's side show increased self-belief but are beaten by smarter opponents at the Emirates
Arsenal's season had obeyed the law that says one good experience leads to another. With each victory the Gunners added points, style, confidence and hope in a future that had been threatening to pan out as the tale of Arsène Wenger’s hubris.
It still promises to be more than that, but Borussia Dortmund interjected with a win that cast doubt on Arsenal’s ability to overcome opponents of the highest class. There was a case for thinking Robert Lewandowski should have been dismissed for an elbow on Laurent Koscielny before he was able to score Dortmund’s winner, but equally that goal showed Arsenal to be “not mature enough in situations like that”, according to Wenger. The metronomic brilliance of Wenger’s best teams is not fully restored.
But there have been glimpses of it in sweeping forward moves, audacious flicks and turns, and the playmaking of Mesut Özil in an increasingly Germanic construction. The Bundesliga, though, still holds the patent, as Dortmund showed 10 minutes from time when Kevin Grosskreutz crossed for Lewandowski to score unmarked at the far post.
Top of the Premier League and the pre-match leaders of Champions League Group F, Arsenal seemed ready for this more searching test – and were equal to it, before Lewandowski pulled away to cancel out Olivier Giroud’s earlier equaliser.
The less optimistic Arsenal fans were probably braced for such a setback. The dark days are too recent for them to believe fully in the renaissance. They want wins all year round and a nice trophy at the end of it. The first cold-shower moment arrived when Aaron Ramsey – a symbol of the resurgence – tried to stage a dribbling exhibition across the face of his penalty box and was robbed of the ball. Dortmund scored through Henrikh Mkhitaryan – a surname to make reporters grateful that copytakers no longer exist.
Giroud, another Arsenal player who has risen on the tide of improved results, then capitalised on a muck-up by Neven Subotic and goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller before half-time to bring Wenger’s men level. Dortmund, a shining example of German football’s speed and athleticism (particularly on the counter-attack) immediately seemed less formidable; less like Champions League finalists and Group F favourites. With that goal, Arsenal seemed to embrace the big-game test: the one they must pass if the upswing is to produce tangible (or silver) gains.
In their fine Premier league run since the 3-1 defeat by Aston Villa, they have beaten Fulham, Spurs, Sunderland. Stoke, Swansea and Norwich. Only Tottenham, from that group, are fellow championship contenders. In Europe there had been less room for doubt. A victory in Marseille and another at home over Napoli were highly promising. In last May’s all-German Champions League final, a question also hung over Dortmund. Had Jürgen Klopp made them as good as they could be or was the defeat by Bayern Munich merely a staging post on the road to greater things?
For much of the first half Arsenal deferred to Dortmund’s growing reputation as a coming force, but Klopp’s team were unable to match the relentless vocal rhythms of their supporters, who banged the drum all night. Why? Because Arsenal remembered why they are back on top of the Premier League. This is a team with fresh conviction, authority, intent, however fragile all those qualities might appear when injuries mount and the other top-five clubs start applying more pressure.
Özil, the transformer, was quiet by his usual standards. There was welcome evidence that Arsenal’s record signing, who played wide right, has inspired those around him to be dynamic even when he is having one of his less impressive games. He has raised their expectations and self-belief.
But Lewandowski had a shock in store. To end the eight-year run without a trophy Arsenal will need to win these games and assert the pedigree they claim they have restored.