Those desperate to pour scorn on Arsenal’s early-season promise are running out of reasons to maintain their scepticism. This win in Dortmund tops anything the Gunners have achieved in reaching the summit of both a formative Premier League table and Champions League Group F, and was realised with a display of resilience, diligence and a touch of fortune – all of which had appeared beyond Arsène Wenger’s side in recent times.
Per Mertesacker excelled at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, Mikel Arteta marshalled the midfield, flirting with a red card in the process, and Aaron Ramsey continued his astonishing improvement by scoring the winning goal, his 11th of the season.
No longer can it be levelled at Arsenal that their fine run of form away from home, now extended to 15 games, is bereft of a notable scalp; the victory against Bayern Munich that set things off in March was ultimately futile, given their exit from the competition on away goals.
Dortmund may have lost Mario Götze, with Robert Lewandowski apparently confirming in the build-up to this match that he would follow the playmaker to Bayern, but their pedigree evidenced in reaching last season’s Champions League final is undiminished. The Bundesliga side had won every home game this season and were seeking their eighth successive win in this competition in front of their own fans but Arsenal became the first English side to win here in 11 attempts, to the delight of the 3,300 travelling support.
Of course, the job is not done. Arsenal still require positive results against Marseilles at home and Napoli away in their final two matches. Just as in the Premier League, their ability to maintain their present pre-eminence is uncertain. But it felt like a significant moment in the evolution of this side, strengthening their resolve and self-belief for the challenges ahead, starting with Sunday’s trip to Manchester United.
Both sides began tentatively in an opening spell punctuated by a series of misplaced passes perhaps explicable by a mixture of the sense of occasion and the slippery surface which became the product of the rain swirling around this magnificent stadium.
Mutual respect also contributed to the cautious early tempo, with Arsenal’s line-up unchanged from Saturday’s Premier League win over Liverpool and Dortmund forced into a solitary change from the team that won the reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium, with Sokratis Papastathopoulos replacing Mats Hummels at centre-back.
Backed by fervent and ceaseless noise from Dortmund’s Südtribüne support, the home side looked more threatening, having appeared to target Kieran Gibbs, who shook off a hip problem to start the match, with right-back Kevin Grosskreutz scampering forward at every available opportunity.
Wenger lamented his side’s naivety in their zeal to win the first meeting but here they prioritised caution and containment in a bid to establish a foothold in the match.
Mertesacker was called into action in the fourth minute after Lewandowski turned smartly in the box but the Gunners defender snuffed out the threat as Dortmund laboured to find their rhythm.
Arteta conceded a 17th-minute free-kick, which Marco Reus swung over to the back post, where Sven Bender forced the ball towards Neven Subotic, but the centre-back could only hook his volley tamely wide.
Jakub Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz began to make inroads against Gibbs, forcing Laurent Koscielny into another smart interception but the Gunners stuck to their task well; the cynical shirt-pull on Blaszczykowski that earned Arteta a yellow card exemplified the visitors’ desire to stifle at all costs.
Reus inexplicably escaped a caution from Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers for hauling down Tomas Rosicky but it was rare evidence of Arsenal as an attacking threat in the opening period.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan wasted the most presentable chance of the first 45 minutes, when opting to place a left-footed effort past Wojciech Szczesny from just inside the box only to send the ball wide.
Uefa’s half-time statistics revealed the visitors registered 54 per cent possession but the lion’s share came in defensive areas, with Arsenal keen to sit deep to nullify Dortmund’s threat on the counter-attack.
Jürgen Klopp’s side upped the tempo after the interval. Reus’s header from Bender’s cross skipped off the soaked pitch, forcing Szczesny to turn it behind. From the resulting corner, Mkhitaryan fired over from 25 yards.
Dortmund went a step closer moments later as Reus turned the ball into the net after Szczesny could only parry Blaszczykowski’s drive from the edge of the box but the flag was rightly raised for offside.
The home support was roused and the pressure on Arsenal intensified. Arteta had another nibble at Lewandowski, Marcel Schmelzer had another goal disallowed: the portents were decidedly ominous. And yet, suddenly, having been almost non-existent as an attacking entity, Arsenal took the lead.
Mesut Ozil, who had barely touched the ball to that point, clipped a cross into the box and Olivier Giroud strained every sinew to win the header and find the onrushing Ramsey. The Welshman converted from close range to give the Gunners an improbable lead.
The tactical shackles then came off in the adrenalin rush. Giroud crossed from the left and Ramsey chested the ball down before firing a right-foot shot that Roman Weidenfeller fortuitously turned behind for a corner.
Mertesacker headed Santi Cazorla’s free-kick onto the roof of the net as Dortmund staggered, punch-drunk. It is testament to Arsenal’s professionalism that they were unable to recover.
* Gonzalo Higuain scored twice to keep Napoli level on points with leaders Arsenal as they overcame Marseilles 3-2. Gokhan Inler scored the opening goal for the hosts, with Andre Ayew and Florian Thauvin replying for the French side.
Results so far
Marseilles 1-2 Arsenal, Napoli 2-1 Borussia Dortmund; Arsenal 2-0 Napoli, Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Marseilles; Arsenal 1-2 Borussia Dortmund, Marseilles 1-2 Napoli; Borussia Dortmund 0-1 Arsenal, Napoli 3-2 Marseilles.
26 Nov Arsenal v Marseilles, Borussia Dortmund v Napoli. 11 Dec Marseilles v Borussia Dortmund, Napoli v Arsenal.
Man of match Mertesacker.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee B Kuipers (Neth).
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