Thursday, March 23, 2023

Sporting 2-2 Arsenal: It was a draw

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A 2-2 draw with Sporting last night exposed some frailties in Arsenal, but leaves us in a reasonable position going into the second leg next week.

Mikel Arteta made six changes from the side that beat Bournemouth, a substantial number considering he’s without his first three options at centre-forward, while there was illness in the camp to contend with as well. The home side had the first real sight of goal, Goncalves curling wide having run in behind, and after that it was fairly even.

We went ahead in the 21st minute. Fabio Vieira curled in a corner, William Saliba – who was our outstanding player on the night – nodded it home, and there were some afters which saw Oleksandr Zinchenko and Sebastian Coates booked, a yellow card which means the big central defender misses the second leg. Zinchenko forced the keeper into a decent save after free kick had hit the wall, and it was comfortable enough until we had a period of sloppiness which resulted in a corner from which they scored.

We’d give the ball away, win it back, give it away again, for no good reason. Maybe there was a bit more pressure from Sporting, but we should have been more secure. They had a shot, Matt Turner made a good save which gave them a corner from which they equalised. New boy Jakub Kiwior didn’t cover himself in glory, but nor too did Turner who looked like he was going to come to claim it – and maybe gave a shout to that effect – but then didn’t, so they both looked like chumps as the Sporting lad headed into an empty net. A poor goal to concede.

Turner made a couple of good saves, but was iffy with the ball at his feet, especially in the first half. At the other end we almost went ahead again but a half-turn of the ball left it short of going over the line from another header, and then there was a bizarre moment when Gabriel Martinelli was booked. The Sporting keeper was blathering on about something, the ref had no idea, came over, and decided to issue the Brazilian with a yellow card. Replays subsequently showed Martinelli did nothing to warrant a booking, whereas Granit Xhaka knocked the ball out of the keeper’s hands. VAR checked, then just carried on as if they didn’t see it. Most odd.

Arsenal began the second half well. Zinchenko created a good chance for Martinelli but the keeper made a save; Vieira shot just wide from outside the box; and Martinelli should have done better with a header from 6 yards but he couldn’t keep it down. The pressure then flipped up the other end as Saliba had to make a brilliant defensive intervention to keep the scores level, but in a couple of seconds it was 2-1. The ball behind our defenders was too easy, Turner made a reflex save, and unfortunately the ball fell to the one Sporting player sandwiched between two Arsenal players and he put them ahead.

Martinelli tried to replicate his amazing goal against Chelsea with an even better run, bursting beyond three defenders, then another, leaving him with just the keeper to beat. I think he should have taken the shot on from there, instead he tried to go around him, but in doing so allowed the defender to get back and make a very good block. Sporting then had a chance to go 3-1 up but fluffed their lines, before a Xhaka pass aimed at Martinelli rebounded off the defender’s crown jewels and into the back of the net for 2-2. Scrappy, but they all count.

Takehiro Tomiyasu came on for Zinchenko and made the left hand side more defensively assured. After a difficult day against Bournemouth, this was good to see, and much more aligned with the kind of performances he usually gives us. Further subs and the introduction of Gabriel and Thomas Partey helped us control the final twenty minutes much better, and there were some more valuable minutes for Emile Smith Rowe.

Bukayo Saka had a couple of efforts in the late stages of the game, but all in all you can’t really argue that a draw on the night wasn’t a fair result. Obviously you’d prefer to go and win, but in the context of the game, this competition, and this season, it’s not a bad result by any means.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

When you concede two poor goals like we did today away from home in Europe, it’s very difficult to get the positive result that we expected. We are conceding too many simple goals and we’ve talked about the importance of boxes, and especially in a competition where you are in or out. Today we didn’t defend that well enough, and we have to do better up against our opponents.

In the moments we had to take control of the game and we lost a little bit of threat today, especially with the front players that we are missing in our frontline. We had some positive because we showed a lot of resilience to get back in the game, but we need to defend our box much better and we have to be in the return leg to beat them.

It’s difficult to get the fluency when you make that many changes, which isn’t to excuse the sloppy moments, more to understand them. I think as well the fact this is a two-legged tie, with an important Premier League on Sunday, had an impact on some performances. It felt to me anyway like there were a few Arsenal players out there ensuring they left something in the tank for the trip to Fulham.

Which is now where the focus must be. The second leg is a straight shoot-out to see who qualifies, but at home and having shown some decent attacking moments, you’d fancy us to go through if we can cut out those errors. Even more so if we can get one or two of our forwards back and ready again. Let’s see.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. I’m out of action today, so we recorded a bit of a post-game podcast for you last night, which you can listen to below or find right now in your favourite podcast app.

Have a good one.

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