In the 67th minute, Arsenal found themselves level with Sporting Lisbon, in the second leg of a Europa League knockout stage. Time was ticking and the threat of Extra Time loomed. The entire atmosphere cut an unusual figure.
Arsenal fans and players alike seemed unsure of how focused and serious they should take the whole thing. Many minds and emotions had seemingly departed the ground and moved on to Sunday already. For the first time this season, the away fans seemed to be far more invested than the home fans, and you can hardly blame anyone involved.
The performance felt like the same thing we have seen from Arsenal throughout the Europa League campaign:
- Low energy
- Sloppy play
- Turnovers in bad areas, especially centrally
- Slow transitions in both directions
And yesterday that caught up with them.
From the whistle Sporting Lisbon looked like a team with less talent that wanted it a whole lot more. It’s the big cup left to compete for in their season. It’s more or less their only ticket to Champions League and silverware.
For Arsenal, this knockout round was 2 distracted matches, 210 dallying minutes, 1 shoot-out, and all of it looked like a burden. Can you win European games by jogging in second gear? Arsenal attempted to find out. The answer: yes, until no. But I don’t think Arsenal will mind that.
Xhaka’s goal is a really nice finish from a player that Arsenal need to get back on the scoresheet. In a funny way, Xhaka scoring is a differential in matches and usually accompanies wins. He hasn’t been on the scoresheet much since Jesus left, but he’s back on it the first game Gabby starts. Coincidence? I think not!
The real star of the goal is Jorginho’s excellent pass, to find Martinelli. It’s just a sublime pass for a player we were told, by fans of his old team, was over the hill and incapable of playing in a quality midfield.
Unfortunately, these same two get sloppy on a pass exchange in the midfield, give away the ball in a bad area, and Arsenal are hit from just inside their own half. Ramsdale doesn’t get to the ball which will look embarrassing for him, but it’s a pretty picture-perfect strike from that distance.
Some good moments at the death and in extra time in which Arsenal maybe could have put themselves ahead, but they couldn’t the net. In the shoot-out, Ramsdale goes the right way on about four save attempts but can’t get enough on any of them to keep them out of the net.
Arsenal players were upset when they lost, but seemed to contextualize it as they walked down the tunnel. “It’s done now, we can’t think too much about it, we have to move forward,” said captain Ødegaard after the match.
The result was probably about what Arsenal earned across the two legs, and I think most fans will be more than willing to shrug it off alongside them, if results in the league retain their consistency.
Rival fans will hurl the insult that this side can’t juggle multiple competitions, but the banter should roll off our backs considering the most important prize hangs in the balance, almost within grasping range.
The ability to juggle multiple fonts is an unanswered question this young team will have to answer in the near future. If they are truly only able to focus on one, while showcasing starkly contrasting performances in the others, one wonders what happens when the team has both Champions League and the Premier League with the same level of importance.
After all, you can’t expect to finish in the top four if you play in the Champions League as we have this year in the Premier League, and play in the Premier League like we have in Europa League.
But that’s a question to be answered next year. For now, we can wave good fuckin’ riddance to the Europa League — hopefully for just about ever — and turn our attention to much bigger and better things. Arsenal have all their eggs in the Premier League basket with little to no distractions along the way.
Except… for a final match of distractions, the script for getting knocked out by Lisbon was about as bad as you could fear:
- Tomiyasu hurt
- Saliba comes off hurt
- Gabriel goes down and could be seen moving around gingerly
- Arsenal plug 120 more minutes into legs
Gabriel played 120 minutes, Martinelli played 120, Xhaka played 120, Zinchenko played 120. White plays 111, Trossard 74, Partey 55, and Saka 55.
The good news, there is an international break after this weekend that should allow many of these players to recoup a bit. The bad news, they have to turnaround in three days and rediscover their levels once more versus Crystal Palace.
To their credit, Arsenal have done exceptionally at that all season. If they can field their regular team, or close to it, they should still be able to get past a struggling Crystal Palace side at home.
After the match, Arteta said, “Tomiyasu looks pretty serious, for his reaction straight away and what he said to me. Obviously, it’s very early and difficult to know. William, I don’t know. He had some discomfort and could not carry on, so we had to take him off.”
He doesn’t make mention of Gabriel which could be a good thing or could be because he wasn’t asked. Fingers crossed Arsenal’s excellent duo is fit and ready for the weekend.
I think many fans will try to view this loss as a positive. No one can blame them. When people talk about European success, they aren’t really talking about the Europa League. Most have had all their eggs in the Premier League race basket and this result means the team do too.
Had Arsenal progressed their April would have looked something like:
- Europa League leg 1
- West Ham
- Europa League leg 2
- Southampton (either cancelled or moved to Sunday)
- Manchester City
That’s not a friendly schedule for a team trying to beat a side like City to the title.
Arteta says he can’t view the result as “a blessing in disguise”, but you wonder how much of that response comes from keeping up appearances. He even waffles a bit in his response
I cannot see it that way today. I don’t know, if you go through the competition and win it, it’s magnificent, if it’s not, then it affects your plans in the league, that’s a different story.Arteta on if this defeat could be a blessing in disguise…
There’s nowhere for this team to hide now, though. All the tickets are in the PL-mixer. They have – nearly – completed the job of being in the top four, but the aspirations have shifted. Find the levels and make it all worth it! The burdensome chore of the Europa League has been ended for them, it’s time to finish strong.