Naive Arsenal still lack savvy for Europe

Arsenal's Jakub Kiwior is shown a yellow card by referee Serdar Gozubuyuk
Serdar Gozubuyuk stopped the game for 36 fouls over the 90 minutes - Reuters/Pedro Nunes
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Football is always the same sport, but in the Champions League knockout stage it is so often a different game. A different feel, a different flow and a different test for sides such as Arsenal, who arrived at this level of Europe’s premier competition with almost zero experience of football played, and officiated, like this.

Not since 2017 have an Arsenal team reached the knockout stage of the Champions League, and precious few of Mikel Arteta’s players have felt what it is like to be frustrated and annoyed on these glamorous midweek nights. Arteta himself, of course, has never lived it before as a manager.

And as a dreary match drifted into the Portuguese night, the minutes inching by without any events of note, it would have been painfully obvious to Arteta that his players had failed to find their usual rhythm. Arsenal are a team who play in patterns and waves, building momentum and suffocating their opponents. Here, it was all in fits and starts, and Porto were always breathing.

Porto managed this game far better than Arsenal, breaking it down at every opportunity. The extraordinary amount of free-kicks awarded was a source of irritation for Arteta and his players, who spent much of the second half with their arms waving in anger towards the referee, Serdar Gözübüyük. It did not do them any good.

“I think when you play the European teams, obviously they are going to play and be really different to English sides,” Declan Rice said. “The refs are really different. You can’t really get away with much in European ties.”

In all, there were 36 fouls (22 of them by Arsenal). That was the highest number of fouls in any Champions League game this season. All those stoppages contributed to the ball being in play for just 52 per cent of the match, which is by far the lowest percentage of the last-16 ties so far. Every time the football started, it promptly stopped again.

This, evidently, was just how Porto wanted it. The onus was on Arsenal to move through those blockages, to impose their game. They never did so, before a late lapse in judgment by Gabriel Martinelli – naivety, perhaps – resulted in Porto, led by 40-year-old centre-back Pepe, snatching a spectacular winner.

“I think the last minute is probably a bit of inexperience,” midfielder Rice said. “Just probably having a bit more savviness, in terms of — [it’s] the 93rd minute, you look up at the clock, it’s 0-0, we gave a ball away on the edge of our box twice and then he [Galeno] bends one in the top bins. So we have got to have a bit of savviness to see out the game, because if you can’t win, definitely don’t lose. Especially in a knockout game.”

Pepe of FC Porto gestures during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 round of 16 first leg match between FC Porto and Arsenal FC at Estadio do Dragao on February 21, 2024 in Porto, Portugal.
Pepe – a veteran frustrator - Getty Images/Diogo Cardoso

Of particular frustration to Arsenal was Porto’s approach to set-pieces. Arteta’s side are a constant threat from dead-ball situations, and they regularly dominate their Premier League opponents from corners and free-kicks. Porto’s tactic to counteract this weapon was simple: wait for any sort of contact from Arsenal’s players in the box, and then hit the ground.

At one point, three Porto players collapsed to the turf in their own six-yard box, clutching their heads. Inevitably, they were awarded a free-kick. “Every time we touched somebody it seemed to be a foul before we even kicked the ball,” Arteta said. “But we will learn and do better.”

Arsenal, it must be said, did not always help their own cause. From these set-pieces, they often took an age to deliver the ball into the box. This was a more minor issue than the number of fouls that were awarded across the course of the game, perhaps, but it all contributed to an occasion that was stodgy and slow.

Asked if Porto’s ability to break up the play was a source of irritation for his team, Arteta said: “That is the context of the game. It is something we knew [about] and that we have to prepare. It is something that the referee has to manage. We cannot do anything about it and we will have to handle it and play our game.”

The blunt truth is that the best Champions League teams know how to handle these occasions. That is what experience brings, and that is what Arsenal currently lack. Of their squad in Portugal, only Kai Havertz and Jorginho have played significant amounts of time at this level of club football. The rest are learning as they go.

Arsenal's manager Mikel Arteta reacts during a Champions League round of 16 soccer match between FC Porto and Arsenal at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal
Mikel Arteta's growing frustration on the sideline was palpable - AP Photo/Luis Vieira

“I think you look on the pitch at a load of their players, you look at Pepe especially, with the experience he has got in these types of ties,” Rice said. “You look at our team, we are such a young group. Some of us have not played in the Champions League before, so it is all about learning on the job.”

The overriding feeling, as Porto celebrated Galeno’s remarkable winner, was that the better team had lost but the smarter team had won. At this level, especially, it pays to be savvy. Arsenal were taught a lesson in that regard, and they need to learn from it fast.

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