Were we watching Arsenal’s first string or second string? It is becoming increasingly hard to tell. Either way, two goals from Lina Hurtig, who was returned to the starting lineup, and a stunning volley from Jordan Nobbs, who was making her first start of the season, gave the Gunners a comfortable 3-1 win over Swiss side FC Zürich in the Champions League group stage.
With Juventus having held Lyon to a 1-1 draw in the earlier game, Arsenal would take a two-point lead at the top of Group C with a win against Zürich at the Emirates Stadium, before a tricky trip to Juventus, the team led by their former manager Joe Montemurro, in late November.
After back-to-back wins – a 5-1 defeat of reigning European champions Lyon and 2-0 win at Liverpool – with an unchanged XI, Jonas Eidevall relegated seven to the bench for the visit of Swiss champions Zürich.
In came Mana Iwabuchi and Nobbs for their first starts of the season, Jen Beattie partnered Lotte Wubben-Moy at centre-back, Vivianne Miedema and Hurtig began up front and Kaylan Marckese made her Arsenal debut in goal in place of Manuela Zinsberger.
The changes spoke to the depth of Arsenal’s squad, which is arguably the strongest it has been in recent years. With that, though, comes challenges.
Iwabuchi had looked crestfallen when making her very brief cameo in the dying seconds against Liverpool and Miedema could be seen talking animatedly with Eidevall on the final whistle. Managing the expectations of a squad packed with talent is a real test of management.
Zürich, who put 10 past Baar in the Swiss cup at the weekend, held out Juventus for 70 minutes last week before falling to a 2-0 defeat and although they are far from European elite, they are a well organised side.
Leading the line for the visiting side was Fabienne Humm, currently the league’s top-scorer with nine goals and who scored deep into extra time in Switzerland’s qualifying playoff with Wales to earn a spot in next summer’s World Cup.
If there was any worry that this new-look Arsenal would struggle to click, those fears were assuaged in the first half, where Arsenal’s first class stand-ins staked a claim for more regular minutes.
The first goal was stunning, and the screams of delight from Nobbs, who has struggled to get game time since her ACL injury ahead of the World Cup in 2019, spoke to what it meant to the long-serving Arsenal midfielder.
Steph Catley, returning to her favoured left-back position after a spell alongside Wubben-Moy in the middle, sent the ball in from the left and Nobbs, lurking near the penalty spot, lifted her leg high to power a volley past goalkeeper Lourdes Romero.
Arsenal’s second came shortly before half time and it was perhaps even more spectacular, and was crafted by more hoping to give Eidevall a selection headache. Iwabuchi won possession in the Zürich box and weaved to the byline before dinking the ball into the middle where Hurtig was waiting to head in past Romero.
The biggest concern for the Gunners will be the number of knocks to key defensive players. With first choice centre-back pairing Leah Williamson and Rafaelle Souza both out injured, a lengthy spell of treatment at the close of the first half for Beattie and a knock to the head for Catley midway through the second, sparked fears for Arsenal’s makeshift backline moving forward.
The second half was scrappy, and the challenges continued to come thick and fast, in the 65th minute Arsenal could feel aggrieved at not being awarded a penalty after midfielder Viktoria Pinther scythed down substitute Katie McCabe, who had come on for Catley not long before.
The sole shock moment was delivered against the run of play and warned of a creeping complacency. Julia Stierli’s ball into the box swung to the waiting Seraina Piubel, who had snuck in behind Wubben-Moy and hammered past Marckese before being mobbed by her teammates and the Zürich subs warming up.
The response from the frustrated Gunners was instant, with Nobbs finding substitute Stina Blackstenius and the Swedish forward forcing a save from Romero, but Hurtig was on hand to pounce on the rebound and punish the perhaps still mentally celebrating Zürich players.
In the end, it was routine, and Eidevall’s decision to take full advantage of the opportunity to rest some legs before his team’s WSL clash with West Ham on Sunday proved wise.