Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal – Sporting: First Leg Thoughts and Takeaways

It wasn’t good, wasn’t awful… it was “the Europa League”. A few thoughts on Arsenal’s first leg in Lisbon.

A 2-2 draw in Lisbon leaves Arsenal in a position to advance if they can earn themselves a result at The Emirates in the second leg. The away goal rule doesn’t exist anymore — perhaps unfortunate after Arsenal score twice — but it makes matters simple: win and go through.

In the most basic way, that would make Arsenal’s first leg match with Sporting Lisbon a success. After all, the Gunners walked out of José Alvalade Stadium as good as they walked into it. From a scoreline perspective, given the home field fixture next, many will consider this advantage to Arsenal.

But the performance was one that leaves us to pick through the bones and try to understand what went well and what was unsatisfactory for a team knocking at the door of a Premier League title. Sporting Lisbon is a decent side, but one that many will have hoped could be brushed aside, or at least beaten, even by a rotated Arsenal side.

A well-taken set piece goal from Saliba — who was very good on the evening — and goal from Xhaka that would make Ronnie O’Sullivan applaud at least get the bare minimum done on the day.

Live to fight another day.

No one that watched the match will be greatly encouraged, but some of the rage and anger toward it seems undue. But that’s been just about every match in a Europa League campaign that has maintained a steady feel: sloppier play on the whole, far lower energy output, still manage to get a result (more or less). It’s quite clear that this competition ranks second in Arsenal’s priority list, but not everything reflected that. So I want to talk about:

  • Lineup
  • Central Midfield Uncleanliness
  • Kiwior
  • Saka
  • The Front Three

Lineup Selection

Perhaps it’s because the selection was so close to what I projected the lineup would be, but I wasn’t surprised when the announcement broke. At least, not nearly as shocked, and even angered, as some seemed to be.

Many fans were startled by this selection, feeling it was too strong. I think that’s interesting. First off, because Arteta always selects stronger lineups than many want, but mostly because this side still made six changes from Bournemouth and moved two players into different starting positions. That’s a lot of change.

The fact that Arsenal fans still find this “strong”, almost too strong, when there were that many changes and five significant players missing — Tierney, Nketiah, Trossard, Ødegaard, Jesus — suggests to me that Arsenal are getting stronger. Perhaps it’s happening under our nose and we have missed it, given how long it has been since we have had a Europa League selection.

For this Arsenal team, this is as close to a “B squad” as we will see. At least, as close as Arteta will let us see.

Not only does he play stronger lineups, but he is very considerate about how rotating players will affect the overall team’s ability to control. When you remove Ødegaard, Partey, Gabriel, and a more regular striker, you remove some of your high-touch controllers. Jorginho and Xhaka help offset that, but that’s also why you see Zinchenko retain his spot. I believe he would have trusted Tierney if he’s healthy, but it’s clear he did not trust Tomiyasu there.

There were also people that wanted to see Saka removed, Nelson on the right, and Smith Rowe start on the left. A VERY rotated front and one that would retain absolutely no match-earned chemistry. No, instead Arteta at least kept right-half-side that knows each other, one familiar with playing alongside Martinelli.

Finally, what’s worth repeating — and has been stated all year — modern sport medicine has changed a bit. No longer do elite-level athletes really get a “day off”. In fact, players on the bench that don’t play can often be seen going through fitness drills and workouts after the match. These are peal level athletes and when managed properly, a 60-70 minute match runout is probably as difficult, or easier, than their usual day’s workload.

Fitness concerns exist, especially with four matches in ten days, but I believe fans are too quick to read into things and label it as fatigue. There have been many fatigue diagnoses this year after the Europa League, yet this team tends to rediscover that Premier League level a few days later.

Central Midfield Uncleanliness

This was the area this match was won and lost… and drawn. And after talking about the need to rotate but retain players that can provide control, it was frustrating to watch some of the sloppy play in the middle that lead to far too much exposure. A better team punished Arsenal for that, and the like of Jorginho, Xhaka, Zinchenko, even White should be cleaner there.

Things got better in the second half and, yes, Arsenal possessed the ball for 68% of the match, but there were far too many changes of possession in central areas that left our backline exposed. Sporting played a lot of simply up-back-and throughs patterns or found space to hit the quick transition ball and work good chances. There’s a reason Arsenal lost the xG battle on the day.

There was lots of control in the back, but the chemistry and connection moving forward was off the mark. We will talk about the front three later, but the word most used at half time was “sloppy”, and it was correct. A similar story to what we have seen all season in the competition, still found a way to create two goals.

Jakub Kiwior Debut

Yesterday was Kiwior’s debut and it went down like the whole team’s performance – so so. On a scale of 1-10, I would probably have given him a 5/10.

He ducks out of the way on Sporting’s first goal, but really that’s a ball that Turner should be claiming. People online were even saying Turner could be heard audibly claiming it, but never actually made the move for it. The fault defiinitely lies at his feet, but it doesn’t look great for the new center back.

Moving beyond that, Kiwior showed us what he can do with the ball at his feet and that’s reason for excitement. He completed 96% of his 48 passes, he was 1/1 on long balls, and made 4 passes into the final third. He even showed up a bit of pace and a willingness to carry the ball toward the opposition to engage defenders and force them to commit.

Sadly, that’s about where the good aspects ended. He’s 0/5 on duels, he makes 3 recoveries, his 50 touches pale in comparison to Saliba’s and are only double Gabriel’s 25, who played just 19 minutes. He looked gun-shy at moments and it was clear the chemistry between him, Saliba, and Zinchenko wasn’t just off, it didn’t exist. There were multiple occasions in which Saliba and Zinchenko looked unsure about what Kiwior was going to do, or if it was them that Kiwior was waiting to have do something. There was even a moment where Zinchenko collides with Kiwior and shoves him forward as he was expecting Jakub to step forward.

It probably wasn’t a dream debut, but those are tough for defenders trying to gain match chemistry with their teammates. There are just aspects of matches too difficult to replicate in training. Add in a steady dose of nerves and a midfield that seemed to leave the high backline exposed, and it’s a tough day.

I’m trying not to read too much into it. I think he gets better from here, but it may be fair to wonder who steps into that role if Gabriel does suffer an injury or faces a suspension.

Saka plays a full 90?

It’s hard to accuse a manager that has his team topping the Premier League of “losing himself in the moment”, but it’s sometimes hard not to feel like Arteta still has to grow in that regard. He’s a young coach that kicks every ball, wants to win every duel and every match, and sometimes it feels like he either loses sight of things or convinces himself risks are worth it.

To me, that’s what keeping Saka in this game for 90 minutes was. I mentioned earlier that these athletes can handle player 60-70 minutes, but that extra 20-30 minutes can take a toll. When I saw the selection, I wasn’t surprised to see Saka’s name on the sheet, but I expected him to be one of the first subbed off, regardless of game state.

This is a decision that will be scrutinized and judged in the coming ten days as Arsenal have two Premier League matches they really have to win and a home leg against Sporting they now have to win. If Saka’s levels take a dip with the quick turnaround or later in the week after he accumulates two and three full-nineties, people may question the decision to play him the extra thirty.

I understand it’s slim pickings on the bench, but sliding Vieira up top for Martinelli would have seemed more far fetched before the whistle than moving him to the left and keeping Martinelli up top.

The Front Three

Arsenal trotted out the front three that saved the day versus Bournemouth just a few days ago. However they didn’t pick up exactly where they left off. On the day, they were decent, but at times lacked that killer edge.

Reiss Nelson held the width and whipped in a few nice crosses. Saka completed some mazy runs and produced two shots. While Martinelli created two chances and worked three shots. However, like everyone in this match, they were filled with bits of good and bits of bad.

Reiss looked more like Europa-League-Reiss than Premier-League-Reiss, Saka hit that Europa League gear (roughly third gear), and Martinelli showed flashes of the raw talent that makes people believe he’s destined for a central role, but also flashed why that might not in the near future.

It’s a difficult attacking performance to dissect. As I said, maybe two goals is enough said. In their best moments they looked dangerous and combative. In their worst, they looked disconnected and disjointed. At the very least, this showed how in need of getting one or two of their three striking options back and fit.

Unfortunately, this was a game that left me as a fan to shrug and move along. I wasn’t angered by it, but I wasn’t impressed either. Perhaps this season’s lack of matches that have felt like this is why the foreign feeling has bothered so many people. The inclination to label it as “shit” feels reductive and gives tones of spoilt. It simply felt the same as every Europa League match has this year.

With a 2-2 draw away from home, Arsenal live to fight another. Everything to play for at home.

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