Marquinhos was the big winner from Arsenal’s 2-1 win over FC Zurich in a low-key Europa League opener that didn’t take much overshadowing.
Mikel Arteta made seven changes from the 3-1 defeat at Manchester United that ended a flawless start to the season and there was little surprise in seeing his side get back to winning ways against a team that has made a desperate start to the Swiss league season and was forced to play this game at St Gallen because their own stadium was being used for an athletics meeting.
The first half was desperately one-sided. A couple of dicey early moments for Arsenal’s new keeper Matt Turner aside, Arsenal’s control was near total. The wholesale changes to the line-up had done little to disrupt the fluency of Arsenal’s general play even if it had somewhat blunted their attacking edge.
At times there appeared to be only one team on the pitch, Arsenal almost toying with a team that even full of confidence and on the own patch would have been hopelessly outmatched by the visitors.
The only surprise as half-time approached was that there was only one goal to show for it. But it was a beauty that would have unlocked far stronger defences than this one. Eddie Nketiah surged down the left and picked out run from the opposite side of the pitch of Marquinhos perfectly.
There was still a great deal for the Brazilian youngster to do, though, and his first-time finish back across goal into the far corner was one to catch the eye. The combination of technique and composure was an intoxicating one, and one that overrode all caveats about the quality of the opposition. The run into the space and finish were of the highest class on a night that wasn’t over blessed with them, the sort of run and finish that could in theory undo the very best.
After a soft penalty gave Zurich the unlikeliest and most wildly undeserved of equalisers just before half-time, Arsenal simply carried on where they left off again in a second half that began with a minute’s silence for Queen Elizabeth II.
There is no point pretending the momentous news that broke at half-time didn’t add to the curious feel of what was already a very Europa Leaguey Europa League game at a neutral stadium.
It’s not quite the old cliche of the result feeling unimportant given wider events, more that the result just still never felt in any doubt. The scoreline may have said 1-1 but the gulf in class was just too great for the right outcome not to be. A second Arsenal goal always seemed certain t0 arrive and it was no great surprise to see the same two players combine to create and score it, Nketiah this time applying the final touch with a neat and tidy downward header.
Arsenal and Arteta can be pleased enough with their evening’s work. Really, only a win would do no matter what the changes or where this tournament sits on the priority list given the desperate form of their opponents – they sit ninth in the 10-team Swiss league with only two points and a -12 goal difference to show for their first seven games.
But it was also a chance for fringe players to show what they can offer, and the fact the game was played at no great pace does Arsenal no harm either. Their schedule, and everyone else’s, for the coming weeks may be a touch more uncertain than it was but they expended little effort here in a match that so often felt like a very gentle attack v defence training exercise.
For so many reasons, few will much remember this game. But Marquinhos will. And the tantalising glimpses he showed of his talent and potential mean it could yet prove a significant one.