People in the future will look back on this scoreline, and assume that this match against the 5-consecutive Bulgarian champions was a stroll in the park - one of the easiest Arsenal wins in recent European history. They'll be wrong. This was a hell of a slog for 42 minutes, the visitors' resistance only broken by a magical chip and four outstanding saves from our deputy goalkeeper.
Of course, I looked at the pre-match lineup and wondered why we hadn't rotated more than we did. There were starts for David Ospina in goal, Kieran Gibbs at left back and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out on the left of our front three, but other than that it was basically as-you-were with our starting XI. I keep forgetting that if I get my fingers burnt on Football Manager 2016 by rotating my entire lineup, I can just reset the game. Arsene doesn't have that luxury.
The Eagles came to play, too. They snapped into challenges and sent some men forward in the first few minutes. People always forget this - the smaller teams can actually play a little. It looked like it might be one of those days, too, when Theo Walcott spurned a chance at a wide-open shot to send a square ball across the six-yard line into a thicket of green shirts.
Alexis Sanchez had other ideas, though. These days, there isn't much difference between too many clubs as far as their foot soldiers and squad players go. But, if one side's best players are a cut above, and they're on form, that's where the margins are. Oxlade-Chamberlain played him in, and the Chilean spotted goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov off his line. This is no mug, by the way, the guy is Bulgaria's # 1. Anyway, from the edge of the area, Alexis scooped an audacious chip over the keeper and into the far corner. My word. You tell me if your club has anyone who can bloody do that.
As for what happened next, I can't say I know for sure what it is. Maybe our boys relaxed a bit. Perhaps Ludogorets decided that they had nothing to lose. Maybe it was a little of both. Anyway, the next half-hour was absolutely nerve-wracking, as the visitors often had the better of the exchanges. At one point, they were even out-possessing us, which much better clubs than them have had trouble doing at our place.
I doubt that Ospina was expecting an easy night, but if he did, he was soon disavowed of that notion. First, Wanderson stung his palms from long range. Later, Jonathan Cafu took advantage of a rare mistake from Laurent Koscielny to race clean through on goal. Luckily, Gibbs was over to cover in time. Still, our Colombian stopper had to be sharp to catch and hold the resulting shot.
They weren't done, though. Dutch winger Virgin Misidjan, he of the ludicrous #93 shirt, shrugged off the attentions of Shkrodan Mustafi and came in alone. Ospina was off his line like a shot though, and punched the ball away from him before he could react.
But, no, you were totally right about him a few months ago, all you Twitter geniuses.
Here's the thing - when a much smaller team goes up against an opponent that they are not expected to beat, the psychology of the match is very different than it would be in an evenly-matched contest. Last week, I quoted The Secret Footballer. This time, I quote from arguably the greatest sports book ever written - The Game, by Ken Dryden:
Thoroughly inferior and playing in Montreal, the Wings are waiting to lose. Watching us, they are deciding whether to contest the loss or to pack up emotionally and prepare for the next game...In Montreal, trying to win with most of the game left to play, they would only rouse us into something they know they can't handle. So, they wait, and hope that we'll wait. And we do...Slowly the Wings enter the game. For thirty minutes they've been the unseen part of the show. Playing Abbott to our Costello, the Washington Generals to our Globetrotters, they are our straight man and our victim, here only to make us look good, nothing more. But letting them stay close, we've made them feel like partners in the game, and now they want something more.And keep them close we did, at least for a while. Ox could have set up Theo for an easy tap-in at the back post, but his pass was poorly weighted. Up the other end, Ospina had to be alert to bat the ball away from Misidjan again, and could only watch as Wanderson missed an open goal with the follow-up.
There is, somewhere out there, an alternate universe in which we were 0-4 down at this point.
Back in this one though, the Gunners essentially killed this off before halftime. The visitors had punched themselves out a bit, perhaps a bit surprised themselves at how closely-run this was (or more accurately, perhaps frustrated to not be ahead). Ozil found Walcott in some space outside the area. The England man then took a touch and walloped a curving shot past the dive of Stoyanov and in. Funny how everyone will still claim we always try and walk it in, and here we have two goals from outside the area. Mongs.
The funny thing is, the game that Dryden writes about, quoted above, eventually became a comfortable win for the Canadiens because they were just too good and too talented in the end. Once they decided to turn it on - vrooooooom - they were gone and out of sight. In possibly related news, we were 3-0 up before most of the Gooner faithful were back from the halftime restroom queues. It was all so simple, too. A surge up the left, Gibbs cut it back across the area, Ox was there to sweep it home.
What a horrible feeling it must be to have come all the way from Bulgaria, fought that hard, gone in to the interval 2-0 down and then THAT happens with 39 seconds gone in the second half, and eons left to play before you get to go home. Well, you know what? Tough. Glad it's someone else's problem for once.
All that was left to determine was the final score. The additional gloss to the scoreline came when, all of a sudden, Ozil decided to turn the rest of the half into the All You Twitter Idiots Were So Hilariously Wrong About Me That You Don't Deserve Internet Access Any More Show. Has a nice ring to it, I think.
The first one was just bloody beautiful, too - a blitzkreig counter-attack that the Invincibles would have been proud of. Koscielny wins a tackle at the edge of our penalty area, a pass up to Santi Cazorla, a long ball which Ozil runs onto, shoulder away the attentions of the defender, BANG, in the net. Hope you didn't blink.
At that point, the boss felt comfortable rotating some more. Santi and Theo came off, Mohamed Elneny and Lucas Perez came on. It was good to see the Spaniard back from injury, that's for sure. I keep harping on it lately, but I feel like we have a plethora of options and weapons now. Underestimate us at your peril.
Meanwhile, the assault on the Eagles' goal continued. Alexis should have won a penalty, and Ox was denied by an excellent stop by Stoyanov. At some point, Alex Iwobi came on for Alexis, who had earned the breather. Then, just as we thought everyone was committed to playing out the 4-0 result, Ozil struck again. Ox won the ball at the center line, and quickly moved it ahead to Lucas, who had drifted out left. The Spaniard centered it in to Ozil, who was never going to miss from in close.
It's almost easy to forget with how nervy the first half was, but fuck me, we played some brilliant football today.
A few minutes later, we scored again on a mirror image of the fifth goal, Perez again playing the ball into the middle for Ozil to finish. Just so we're on the same page here, that was a hat trick for this genius, this absolutely unique and brilliant football master. I'm just going to leave this here.
So, we sit pretty on top of the group, tied with Paris Saint-Germain on points but three ahead on goal difference. There's still the small matter of having to play the French side at our place, as well as the fact that this lot we played today will be a tougher out in Bulgaria (oh, and Basel aren't a bad outfit either). We're only halfway home. But, I'm not as worried as I would have been in seasons past. Something is different this time around. It's hard for me to articulate it, but it's there. Of course, we're still boned if Kos or Mustafi get hurt for any length of time, but for now this club is just chugging along and I goddamn love it.
Man of the Match: I know, I know, Mesut had a hattie and an assist...but if David Ospina doesn't keep them out for as long as he did, this might have been a much different story.