After Arsenal forced the rest of the country to finally take notice of their fine form following their impressive 3-1 victory over Leicester City on Monday night, fans could be forgiven for thinking they would see a similar showing in Lisbon on Thursday against CP Sporting. However, the match quickly became a battle of sloppiness and attrition, as the Gunners managed to escape Portugal with the narrow 1-0 victory. The win was their 11th straight in all competitions, and it has put Arsenal in the driver’s seat in their Europa League group, movingUnai Emery’s team just 3 wins shy of the club record 14-match win streak set by George Graham’s 1987 team.
Gunners Dabble In Defensive Dark Arts
One of the criticisms that has been consistently levied at Arsenal teams in the years following the immortal 2003/04 season is that the players (and in some ways, the manager) are just too nice. The Gunners have consistently had pure talent and technical wizardry in the team since that last Premier League title. However, fans often found themselves clamouring for players with the grit and determination of Patrick Vieira, the wily defensive tricks of Tony Adams and the boiled over passion of Martin Keown to supplement the artistry of their hallmark attacking football.
While it would be deceptive to claim Arsenal now possess all of these characteristics in spades, part of the club’s recruitment his past summer clearly centred around bringing some of that fighter’s mentality back into the team. Whether it is the tenacious Lucas Torreira in the midfield or the hot-blooded Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Stephan Lichtsteiner in defence, Unai Emery has been given some rough and ready options to inject some physicality into the Gunners’ play.
On Thursday, Emery called on a combative backline to deal with a Sporting side buoyed by an energised crowd. Stephan Lichtsteiner lived up to his reputation of professional agitator, while Rob Holding and Sokratis held down the centre-back position with a resolute physicality. Indeed, the trio’s aggression walked the fine line of legality as they pestered the Sporting attack, who appeared intent on drawing a cheap penalty whenever they found themselves in the Arsenal box.
Lichtsteiner got under the skin of more than one Sporting player, and Rob Holding laid a few heavy challenges on the hosts. The young Englishman is developing a bit of a penchant for finding his way into the referee’s book of late, but he played quite well aside from a tense few minutes in the first half when Sporting were at their most threatening. It didn’t always look smooth, but the Gunners largely gave goalkeeper Bernd Leno a clean night, though, if Sporting had found the target more efficiently when the opportunities did come, it might have lead to a very different result.
A Risky Rotation
There is little reason to doubt Granit Xhaka’s dedication to the team. Having become a mainstay in the Arsenal first choice XI a couple months into the 2016 Premier League season, Xhaka has been one of the most consistent players in a side that has struggled for it at times during his stay with the club. A hard worker and more cerebral player than physical talent, Xhaka has suffered a great deal of criticism over his limited pace and sloppy tackling. However, like Arsene Wenger before him, Unai Emery has found the Swiss international to be an indispensable part of the team.
So indispensable, in fact, that a rash of injuries to players who typically man the left back position forced Emery to call on his good soldier, Xhaka, to fit into the backline for Thursday’s match in Lisbon. Having slid into the same spot during Monday’s clash with Leicester when Emery made aggressive changes to go for the victory, he apparently showed his manager enough in that brief period to earn the start just 3 days later. Despite lacking the threat of pace on the overlap, and having some suspect moments when covering out to the touchline on diagonal balls overhead, his positioning was generally good and his desire to do well remained intact. He stayed narrow when Sporting would push wide on the opposite side of the pitch, and despite looking susceptible to balls in behind him, he nevertheless helped contribute to the Gunners going 90 minutes without allowing a shot on target, a positive sign for a defence that has been porous at times this season.
Xhaka’s emergency turn at left-back was the most curious change Emery made to his heavily rotated XI, but it was not the only one that provided tense moments. The midfield trio of Aaron Ramsey, Matteo Guendouzi and Mohammed Elneny lacked the sharpness and cohesion of a group who has played together often, and indeed, players like Elneny and Lichtsteiner have only featured in the team periodically. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was his usual energetic self, creating dangerous moments through his pressing and movement, but he (like the whole side, especially in the first half) was off the mark with his final ball and slightly out of sync when linking with the other attackers. The performance was some distance from the exuberant dominance of the Leicester match, but winning difficult away matches without a full-strength XI and when the team isn’t clicking builds character that can pay off later in the season.
Torreira Again The Difference
The script, by now, is familiar. Arsenal begin a match in sluggish fashion, struggling to assert their will over the opponent immediately following the opening whistle. The midfield looks a little sluggish and the defence is having gaps exposed where they shouldn’t be. The attack, when it does get into dangerous areas, lacks the tempo and precision it has shown during its finest moments this season to cause much damage on the scoresheet. Half-time hits just as the Gunners begin to come alive, and Unai Emery and his coaching staff make adjustments during the break. The second half comes and at some point during the next 45 minutes, Lucas Torreira comes on and Arsenal go on to win the match.
And so it was on Thursday, when Lucas Torreira started the match on the bench before coming on in the second half to aid in the fight for a victory. He was introduced on 58 minutes for Mohammed Elneny and immediately, the energy of the match shifted. Arsenal began to dominate the ball more, pinning Sporting back consistently for the first time all night. His defensive industry contributed to the Gunners’ overall solid performance at the back, and he added just enough class to the midfield to help eek out the win. It is hard to imagine any player in the Premier League whose presence has done more to change the perception and mood around their team as Torreira this season. At just 22 years of age and still in his first season in English soil, it is fair to expect even more to come from the brilliantly talented Uruguayan, a thought that is sure to excite supporters to no end.
Welbeck Continues To Show His Value
When it comes to next summer’s transfer window, all the talk of potential departures from the club centres around Aaron Ramsey and his expiring contract, but Danny Welbeck is another player who could depart the Emirates Stadium on a free transfer following the end of the season. Though far from a starter under both Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery these last two seasons, Welbeck has done extremely well to fight back from persistent and serious injury concerns to be a valuable contributor to the team. He sits behind both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the pecking order at striker, but his versatility and willingness to press have ensured he continues to have a role under Emery.
Welbeck has become something of a midweek specialist for Unai Emery this season, netting twice in both the League Cup and Europa League so far this season. He has added another in Premier League play to give him 5 for the season already. He was there when his team needed him in Lisbon in Thursday as he scored the only goal of the match on a clever run through the heart of the Sporting defence. The hosts had been exceedingly tough at home, especially against visiting English teams, and Welbeck, at times, looked the only player capable of breaking through for the Gunners. Before scoring the winner in the 77th minute, the Englishman had a previous chance blocked from point-blank range and an apparent headed goal called back due to offside.
With Win, Gunners in Command of Group E
Unai Emery knows a little something about winning the Europa League. Having done so three consecutive seasons at Sevilla, the Spaniard arrived in North London with the hope that he could do the same at Arsenal and get the club back into next season’s Champions League. For the second consecutive campaign, the Gunners have made life a little easier on themselves by winning each of their first 3 group stage matches. Arsenal now lead the group by 3 points, and are clear favourites to advance to the knockout stages from Group E.
However, the players will be hoping that their second time through the group will be smoother than it was a year ago when Arsenal went 1-1-1 to close out group play, a more dramatic finish to proceedings than they would have preferred. Unai Emery has favoured more selective than total rotation for midweek fixtures, and it remains to be seen whether or not he integrates more youth into the team as their position atop the group becomes more secure. Emery has yet to coach in a league that does not have a winter break, and as the fixtures start flying thick and fast in England just as the rest of Europe are on pause for the festive period, he will need to monitor the fitness of his players carefully.