Luuk de Jong inspires PSV Eindhoven to win that makes Arsenal wait | Europa League

In his haste to avoid two extra Europa League fixtures, Mikel Arteta may now have to bring out the big guns for one more. This was Arsenal’s worst performance of the season by some distance and, while it is hardly time for alarm bells, a wake-up call had been coming.

They never got going against a motivated PSV Eindhoven who were transformed by a masterclass in centre-forward play from the half-time substitute Luuk De Jong and it leaves the visitors’ manager with an unwelcome dilemma.

The subject of tiredness has been a creeping theme in Arsenal’s season, largely because of Arteta’s insistence on fielding strong sides in an unremarkable Europa League group. It had brought them a 100% record up to this point and a draw here would have meant a potential night off against FC Zürich next Thursday. While Arsenal have already qualified for the knockout stage, winning the group would mean they bypass a dicey play-off in February, a round in which Juventus and Barcelona await.

A starting lineup featuring Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard, Granit Xhaka, William Saliba and Aaron Ramsdale should have been strong enough to complete the task. Instead Arteta was obliged to fling on Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Thomas Partey in fruitless pursuit of salvation as their night disintegrated. It did not work and the concern now is that he may have to deploy at least some of them against Zürich, three days before they visit Chelsea.

That Swiss assignment at the Emirates should pose few problems and a win would guarantee top spot. But Arteta must decide how many chances to take at a time when flat second-half performances are becoming a trend. They had flattered to deceive at Bodø/Glimt, Leeds and Southampton; a result like this felt around the corner and it is reasonable to wonder whether, and why, an element of their early-season freshness might be missing.

“It’s the end of a long run and now it’s time to reset and analyse what happened,” Arteta said. “PSV deserved to win, no question, we were nowhere near our level today. We didn’t have the threat and aggression we’ve been playing at and that is worrying.” It was true from kick-off. PSV needed this more, a fact borne out by their exuberant post-match celebrations.

Aaron Ramsdale (right) shouts in frustration after Joey Veerman breaks the deadlock for PSV.
Aaron Ramsdale (right) shouts in frustration after Joey Veerman breaks the deadlock for PSV. Photograph: Kieran McManus/Shutterstock

They knew a win could secure them a knockout place if Bodø/Glimt failed to beat Zürich and two late goals from the Swiss side sealed a perfect night. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s players had, save for the schemer Xavi Simons, not impressed in defeat at the Emirates but were greatly improved here. Simons had an early shot saved by Ramsdale, who was deployed due to Matt Turner’s groin injury, while both he and Cody Gakpo had first-half goals chalked off for narrow offsides.

Yet they did not look capable of mounting sustained pressure until De Jong, the 32-year-old who was scoring in La Liga for Barcelona last season, came on and made everything stick. PSV began the second period at speed but thought they had squandered a chance when Gakpo raced through and shot across goal, the ball running out of play on the far side.

The danger looked to have passed but Eddie Nketiah, who could learn numerous things from De Jong on this evidence, was beaten too easily to Kieran Tierney’s throw-in up the line and Arsenal were now in trouble again. De Jong rolled Rob Holding too easily outside the area and was able to tee up Joey Veerman, arriving on the run, for a swept first-time finish that cranked up an already feverish atmosphere.

“The moment something went wrong we just went down and didn’t know how to react,” Arteta said. The final blow was applied eight minutes later and it was a sobering moment for Ramsdale in particular. He missed his punch from Gakpo’s left-sided corner, Holding having failed to connect when jumping alongside him, and the ball could ping off a more determined De Jong’s head into the vacant goal.

Arsenal could point to smart saves demanded of Walter Benítez by Nketiah, once early on and again towards the end, and a wayward volley by Martinelli before the interval. But they were sluggish with their 70% share of possession and lax in the duels when out of it; there was no point dressing up their display as anything better and Arteta must now cajole them into finishing the job next week.

“They have been exceptionally good and playing at a level that probably no one expected,” he said. “Now it’s down to me to get the best out of them.”

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

Arsenal are through to the Europa League knockout stages and close to achieving a secondary aim, too. Granit Xhaka’s superbly-taken winner 19 minutes from time saw off a PSV Eindhoven side, managed by an old foe in Ruud van Nistelrooy, who resisted awkwardly before buckling under intense pressure. It means Mikel Arteta’s team retain their perfect Group A record, now requiring a point from their final two games to finish top and avoid the inconvenience of an extra playoff round in February.

The task for Arsenal was made clear from kick-off: they would have to break down visitors who had come to sit in and thwart. Van Nistelrooy’s side, second in the Eredivisie, had scored 10 times across two ties with FC Zurich but were pragmatic about what might be achieved here. They did not manage a spell of possession in Arsenal’s half until the 16th minute although, in fairness, they had hardly been hanging on until then.

Arteta had again treated a Thursday night with respect, retaining five of the side that scraped past Leeds and deciding not to give Gabriel Jesus a second successive midweek off. Bukayo Saka was also pressed into action and found himself behind the first flutter of excitement, clipping a cross that Kieran Tierney blazed over after Eddie Nketiah had miscued.

Nketiah, deployed on the left, pressed PSV’s defence eagerly but a sidefooted shot from Xhaka was the next moment of relatively serious threat. It missed the target and so, by slightly less, did a daisy cutter sent in by Jesus after finding space 20 yards out. In truth these were morsels although Jesus, anticipating a cleverly scooped ball from Fábio Vieira on the half-hour and taking a swing, would surely have scored if he had made contact.

By then PSV had offered a couple of glimmers for their noisy following. Cody Gakpo, the vaunted winger who had talks with Manchester United in the summer, set off on a couple of gliding runs down the left while the sharp Xavi Simons was allowed to run through a void midfield before blasting over.

Those moments did little to reverse the traffic but Arsenal found themselves bogged down in congestion until half-time. Vieira brushed the side netting with a free-kick and a sparkling Saka run gave Nketiah the chance to centre, but PSV had bodies in the way and survived in relative comfort.

Granit Xhaka volleys home the only goal of the match
Xhaka volleys home the only goal of the match for Arsenal. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

There had been little to enthuse the crowd that came out for this rescheduled fixture in what were, considering the unusual 6pm kick-off time, laudable numbers. The touchline-stalking figure of Van Nistelrooy might once have added a distraction but raised not a flicker of interest from the stands: perhaps many of those present were too young to remember the days when his presence in a Manchester United shirt meant guaranteed needle.

Jesus tried to add some edge but scuffed through to Walter Benítez in the 52nd minute after smart work from Saka. Shortly afterwards Simons volleyed high from a fast PSV break and then Saka ran through but, with the best chance to date, let Benítez save with a leg. At least proceedings were opening up.

They did so again when Jesus, in space, could not make a clean enough contact and allowed Benítez to tip away low down. Nketiah then took down a diagonal ball superbly before cutting inside and missing narrowly; Arsenal were getting closer but Arteta nonetheless summoned Thomas Partey and Martin Ødegaard for the final quarter.

Simons made Matt Turner save for the first time but Xhaka quickly produced the moment Arsenal had been threatening. Both newcomers were involved in a move that ended with Takehiro Tomiyasu crossing deliberately from the right. Xhaka, stationed around the penalty spot, greeted the delivery with a sweet half-volley past Benítez and enhanced his new-found reputation as a menace in opposition boxes. Saka, twice, and the substitute Gabriel Martinelli both came close to doubling the lead but one was enough.