LONDON — There will be no show in Budapest for Arsenal. Instead, what awaits Mikel Arteta’s side are 11 more finals, the games that will determine whether this is a season of far greater glory for the Gunners than anything the Europa League has to offer.
Honestly, they could hardly have coordinated for them in a more exhausting way. It was not the nature of their performance in the 1-1 draw with Sporting CP, where the Portuguese side emerged victorious after Gabriel Martinelli’s missed spot-kick. It was probably all they had to spend over two hours getting that far. Even those who hadn’t played the full 120 minutes left the Emirates Stadium bruised, drained and soaked to the bone from their clash with Ruben Amorim’s frenetic side. Most worrying of all, William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu are down with injuries that will make Arteta sweat over their availability beyond the visit of Crystal Palace on Sunday and the international break that follows.
An unlikely title challenge — one that will define this season far more profoundly than anything they achieve in the continent’s second division — had been sparked by Arteta’s ability to name a largely unchanged squad on a week-to-week basis. Arsenal did not, as Erik ten Hag claimed on Wednesday night, have an “absolutely available” squad. Oleksandr Zinchenko and Thomas Partey have missed the starting XI in 15 games between them in the Premier League. Gabriel Jesus’ start tonight was his first in any competition since November 12th. Arteta didn’t have to make changes with the frequency of his Manchester United counterpart because he didn’t see players break out as spectacularly as Harry Maguire and Anthony. Why change a formula that yields such consistent wins?
It is certainly true that Arsenal’s injuries have left their foundations largely intact: Mohamed Elneny, Jorginho, Kieran Tierney, Eddie Nketiah and Leandro Trossard have filled the gaps effectively. All this may change. If the back injury that forced Saliba off in the 19th minute is serious, then Arsenal’s entire style of play is at risk, particularly if Tomiyasu is also out for an extended period after slipping badly earlier in the game.
The two players who carry the biggest load on this team are their center backs. Zinchenko can go very far because Gabriel plays two positions at once. Balls into space behind Ben White are picked up with ease by Saliba. These two penetrate with their passing, but most importantly, they have the physical gifts and vision of danger to come, which allows those in front of them to bring the opposition back in numbers in the final third.
With all due respect to Rob Holding, a player who has never made a public complaint as he shuffled the depth chart, instead carving out a role for himself as a late-game player when points need to be attached, he can’t deliver in Arteta remotely comparable qualities. He pounced on any ball that came his way, making crucial blocks denying Paulinho and Francisco Trincao, but he wasn’t comfortable moving into midfield under pressure from an opponent.
He may be good enough to carry Arsenal into the visit of Crystal Palace on Sunday and the international break, but his experiences at Tottenham last season, baited by an early red card that overturned a brilliant start by his team-mates, serve as a warning of what happens when the Gunners get a limited defense in the bigger games.
Doomsday may be premature as an international break approaches. Tomiyasu is not the first choice, certainly a valuable stock, but his absence can be overcome. If he was fit and Saliba was not, then Arteta could simply return to the four-fifths of the defense that was extremely solid last season. However, those two injuries immediately called into question Arteta’s decision to go so hard against Sporting.
Not that he could afford to just unload his bench. This was a serious opponent, disrupting Arsenal’s tempo with organized pressing and attacking midfield tackles from the start. Trincao ran here and there out on the left, while Paulinho’s size and mobility provided the test for an ever-shifting defence. Granit Xhaka’s thunderous strike on the rebound from a Gabriel Martinelli shot did nothing to break their resolve and Manuel Ugarte’s thunderous low drive that flashed wide of Aaron Ramsdale’s far post was just a harbinger of what was to come. .
Jorginho did well to give the ball back to Arsenal in the engine room, but his touch was heavy, his slide not getting him close enough to possession. Pedro Goncalves stepped in, two strokes to settle before hitting the nine iron from 46 yards out. So often these goals are framed around goalkeeping failures and yes, Ramsdale probably would have saved it if he was a yard or two closer to the goal line. If he was, though, there would be half a dozen chances of dangerous moments that he wouldn’t be able to sweep. And honestly, it would still be a good save, even if it was a few feet deeper.
The name Nayim may mean little to a team too young to remember the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup final, but the Emirates Stadium needed no reminding. As the rain pelted the roof of the Emirates, forcing some at the front of the Clock Stand and the East Stand to abandon their seats, they could be forgiven for thinking this was just the kind of night where every Leandro Trossard shot was to be diverted. the publication. Even late substitute Martin Odegaard’s rallying cries could only dampen the tension for a moment. Everyone knew this game was going well, that they needed to save their energy to boo every Sporting penalty to the skies.
It wasn’t enough to deter them. Ramsdale might have gone close with Goncalo Inacio’s tame effort but the rest were struck with precision and purpose. So was Arsenal until Martinelli went very close to Antonio Adan, who had produced two superb saves from Gabriel to send Sporting to penalties ahead of the Clock End. With that, the other trophy slipped from their grasp, but this season was long overdue for domestic honours. The point of this game may not be apparent until we see how much of an impact it has on the title tilt.