Xhaka fires Arsenal to victory over PSV to seal Europa League progress

Xhaka fires Arsenal to victory over PSV to seal Europa League progress

Granit Xhaka’s transformation from pariah to poster boy has been one of the stories of this year for Arsenal and he continues to write new chapters. He has become a persistent threat in the final third and this time his recently acquired taste for goalscoring saw them home. A dogged PSV Eindhoven side were overcome by the kind of finish associated more closely with the attacking talent around him and it was a flourish that could yet have far-reaching consequences.

It confirmed that Arsenal, who have qualified from Group A with two games left, need only a point from the return fixture to ensure they top the pile. That would spare them the inconvenience of an appearance in the February playoff round, which will be studded with drop-outs from the Champions League, and slightly alleviate a relentless schedule.

“Sometimes it’s just about unlocking something in a player’s mind,” Mikel Arteta said after watching Xhaka sweetly half-volley in Takehiro Tomiyasu’s deliberate cross from 15 yards. “His work rate all the time to learn is fantastic and now it’s paying off.”

After knocking at the door throughout a largely turgid first half but failing to create a clear chance, Arsenal had looked likely to break through by the time Xhaka scored. Arteta had felt concerned enough to bring on Martin Ødegaard and Thomas Partey, who were both involved in the matchwinning move, but Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka were already carrying the fight. Saka, in particular, was outstanding and would have opened the scoring had the busy Walter Benítez not saved with a foot.

Arteta’s post-match observations on Saka were more illuminating than much of the preceding fare. It seemed a gamble to give the forward, who has started every game bar two this season, 85 minutes and there was concern when he went down after receiving a kick. The knock did not turn out to be serious. He was the best player on the pitch but Arsenal could surely have got by without him here; Arteta, however, would have none of it.

“Look at the top players in the world: they play 70 matches, every three days, make the difference and win the game,” he said. “You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. If we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake. I want them to be ruthless every three days. There’s no fitness coach in the world that is going to tell me they cannot do it, because I’ve seen it. The players that score 50 goals do not play 38 games in a season, it’s just impossible.”

Saka just keeps going and so do Arsenal, who have won three straight games by a single goal and have discovered a happy knack of finding ways to prevail. This time they needed patience against visitors, managed by an old foe in the form of Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose attacking intent was limited. Cody Gakpo, the captain and vaunted winger, was subdued and their biggest threat was the former Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona schemer Xavi Simons, who had their best three efforts and caused occasional flutters with his close control.

The substitute Noni Madueke, a Spurs academy product, looked bright in their quest for an equaliser but in truth Arsenal should have run away with it. Benítez saved twice from Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, who was deployed late on; wayward finishing was Arteta’s only cause for complaint.

“We had some really dominant and good moments, but we lacked the final action to put more shots on target and score more goals,” he said.

They have a chance to put that right in the Netherlands next week. The hope must be that the rematch passes smoothly off the pitch: seats and a flare were thrown from the PSV section after full time as the temperature briefly rose. Xhaka had already guaranteed the travelling fans a longer journey home.