The most telling snapshot of this rout, which had been clinical to the point of sterility, came a few seconds into added time. Arsenal had barely missed a beat all night but now, near the corner of their six-yard box, the Lens striker Elye Wahi had a presentable chance to gnaw the faintest dent in their lead. That was until Gabriel Magalhães, whose evening could hardly have been more comfortable until then, snuffed out the opening with a thudding challenge and celebrated in front of the home fans as if he had scored their seventh goal.
Arsenal had to settle for six but Mikel Arteta loved that moment. It spoke eloquently, chest-thumpingly, of the focus that has enabled them to cruise through a modest Group B in top spot with a game to spare. The crowd, who had been contented by a rampant first-half performance and warmed further by a late Jorginho penalty, would have forgiven a consolation for the visitors but that notion was anathema to Gabriel. Exactly this level of diligence will be needed when tougher continental tests arrive in the spring and Arteta was delighted by the tone his players have set.
“When the team has that body language, living every action and every game the way we do, good things are going to come,” he said. “The team wants to win, doesn’t want to concede anything, and that’s the mentality we need to become better.”
The relative bleakness of Europa League Thursdays and, latterly, free midweeks seems a distant memory. Arsenal certainly made it easy to forget the dark times here, even if Lens defended risibly in shipping four goals within the first 27 minutes. Had PSV Eindhoven not engineered a remarkable turnaround win at Sevilla earlier in the evening, Arteta’s side would have been home and dry without kicking a ball. In the event they did not have to play for long before securing their progress, picking Lens apart whenever they went through the gears.
Lens were not threatened in the early moments, briefly breeding the thought they might engineer a repeat of their win in the reverse fixture eight weeks previously, but that was as good as their night got. Kai Havertz, back in the starting lineup after his heroics off the bench at Brentfordoffered a warning in the 12th minute when his free header arced just wide. It was a warning shot that Lens, backed by a pulsating corner of red-and-yellow-clad fans, failed to heed.
Almost immediately Gabriel Jesus got the better of a Kevin Danso, a centre-back several inches taller, as they contested a looping ball and nodded down for Havertz to bundle past Brice Samba from close in. Havertz had anticipated sharply but Danso’s absence of aggression had allowed Jesus to forge the chance. It was entirely of a piece with everything that followed.
The next time Arsenal attacked with any menace, Danso and Facundo Medina got in each other’s way after Bukayo Saka’s attempt to find Jesus appeared to have been crowded out. Eventually Jesus took possession, creating the angle smartly and drilled a slick low finish to Samba’s right. The points, and a position among the seeded teams in the round of 16, were as good as safe already.
Nonetheless Arsenal kept coming. Havertz, enjoying the spaces Lens afforded him, took possession after a long David Raya clearance and fed a rampaging Gabriel Martinelli. While the resulting shot, unloaded from Martinelli’s favoured spot cutting in from the left, was meaty it should have been dealt with efficiently by Samba. Instead his parry bounced in off an unwitting Saka, who could claim perhaps the strangest goal of his career.
Arteta lauded Saka’s newfound ability to score “ugly goals” and was also pleased to see Martinelli go one better four minutes later, this time twisting Przemyslaw Frankowski inside out before flashing an unstoppable strike across Samba. While Lens flickered briefly after that, Raya saving from Wahi and Medina hitting a post, Martin Ødegaard’s emphatic volley from a cross by the excellent Takehiro Tomiyasu gave the scoreline a surreal sheen at the interval.
“I didn’t even dream like this,” said Arteta of such comfortable progress. “We’ve done it in a convincing way against a really good side. Everything happened in the right way in the first 30 minutes.”
Everybody might have happily called it a day before the second 45, which was virtually featureless bar a raft of substitutions and the away contingent’s admirable efforts to maintain an atmosphere.
Lens had little to chase: they can still join Arsenal in the knockouts if they beat Sevilla at home and Arteta cajoles a victory at PSV. “We will prepare it in the best possible way,” he said of that game, but the lack of stress will be welcome. The substitute Jorginho, with a VAR‑awarded spot-kick, ensured pulses raised briefly again towards the end and Arsenal could bask in the cleanest of eviscerations.