Arsenal now appear to be primed for another spring rally with a cup competition at its core.
The Gunners ended last season by offsetting Premier League disappointment with a third FA Cup success in four years – and this time the Europa League could offer similar salvation.
The presence of Atletico Madrid and, to a lesser extent Lazio, means thoughts of lifting the trophy must be tempered, but Arsenal first had to create the conditions to make that a possibility after a spell of significant turbulence which threatened to blow them off course.
Eight defeats in 13 games between January 7 and March 4 stirred anti-Arsene Wenger sentiment and heightened the necessity of succeeding in the competition as a route back into the Champions League.
They suffered a similar run last term – seven losses in 12 games between January 31 and April 10 – and Wenger gambled on switching to a back three in a bid to focus minds for an FA Cup run that helped keep him in a job.
There has been no such formation change this time. In fact, Wenger has now abandoned the 3-4-2-1 system which he claimed gave the team extra stability in favour of this more expansive 4-2-3-1 which showcased the best and most alarming aspects of Arsenal in last night’s Europa League quarter-final, first-leg win over CSKA Moscow.
The Gunners have now won five consecutive games since losing at Brighton – the last of their dismal 13-match sequence – and three of those victories have come in the Europa League.
AC Milan were easily dispatched and although successive 3-0 wins over Watford and Stoke were slightly flattering, this latest display was both emphatic and entertaining. They enjoyed this. The fans did, too, and although empty seats were dotted around the stadium again, those that did turn up applauded the players off after a first half which ended 4-1 in Arsenal’s favour but could easily have been something like 7-2.
There were concerns about the way the Gunners defended as CSKA wasted several opportunities. Teams with greater quality and conviction in the final third will surely punish a repeat showing of those flaws, but improvement in that area can come later.
Arsenal’s more immediate concern is generating a momentum which can help drive them towards winning a competition which began as a sideshow in their campaign but is now pivotal to the short-term future of Wenger and the club.
CSKA’s ageing rearguard made the task easier than it could otherwise have been, but the Gunners look to be on the right track as they aim to put a difficult spell behind them.
“We have responded well,” Wenger told Standard Sport. “People forget that we lost three games in a week [twice against Manchester City and then Brighton] because the first game we lost was a final and it takes time to recover from that.
“The mentality is good in the side and that’s why we recovered. You’re always worried when you don’t win games that people expect you to win, but there’s only one way to respond: with the quality of the performance on the pitch.”
That quality was in abundance going forward last night. Mesut Ozil was at the heart of everything good about Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey scored twice, the second a sublimely deft finish on the volley, and Alexandre Lacazette marked his first start since January 30 with a brace to cement his status as first choice in this competition, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup-tied.
Next week’s return game in Moscow offers only a trace of doubt about their progress. In fact, it is almost inconceivable Arsenal will not score in the second leg against a back three with a combined age of 108, meaning CSKA would require four to even force extra time.
There was, however, still a note of caution in Wenger’s reaction. “We are in the quarter-final and it is a long way to go — we still have to finish the job,” he said. “We have suffered a lot recently, so that will help us to keep our feet on the ground and be humble.”