Arsenal rotation backfires as Mikel Arteta’s well-oiled machine splutters in Sporting Lisbon draw
Mikel Arteta has kept rotation to a minimum this season — and Arsenal’s performance on Thursday night underlined why.
This was a display lacking the cohesion and fluidity that has fired the Gunners to the top of the Premier League. Arteta’s side were uncharacteristically sloppy in possession and open at the back, with the biggest positive being the result.
A 2-2 draw against Sporting has put Arsenal in a solid position ahead of the second leg of this Europa League last-16 tie next week. If the result was satisfactory, the method was not. It was, however, easily explained after Arteta made six changes to his starting XI.
Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, centre-back Gabriel and midfielder Thomas Partey were all rested. Arsenal were also without Gabriel Jesus and Martin Odegaard, due to injury and illness.
It meant the team essentially had a brand-new spine, including debutant Jakub Kiwior, who made his first appearance since joining for £21million in January. Kiwior, like many others, struggled, and Arsenal’s well-oiled machine looked rusty, as Arteta experimented with new combinations.
“When you make six changes, that cohesion isn’t really there, and you can sense it, especially in the first minutes of the half,” said Arteta. “You could feel we needed time to adapt, but if we don’t expose them, that’s never going to happen.”
Arteta wants Arsenal to fight for both the Europa League and Premier League, and as such rotation is inevitable. So are the teething problems that come with that, which was emphasised by the manner of the goals Arsenal conceded.
Goncalo Inacio cancelled out William Saliba’s opener by heading home unmarked from a corner. Paulinho put Sporting ahead with a tap-in that came after Arsenal’s defence was cut open too easily. Arsenal have now kept just two clean sheets in their last 10 games.
“When you concede two poor goals like we did, it’s very difficult to get the positive result that we expected,” said Arteta.
A fortuitous own goal from Hidemasa Morita meant the Gunners levelled the tie. Granit Xhaka had been trying to find Gabriel Martinelli, but the pass hit Morita and somehow found the bottom corner.
Arsenal’s midfield were unusually loose with their passing. There was a lack of dynamism in their play as well, and Arteta may be reluctant to pair Jorginho and Xhaka alongside each other again in the future.
“We gave too many balls away, we gave them hope and the capacity to go into transition moments they are good at,” said Arteta.
There will be more changes when Arsenal are back in action on Sunday at Fulham, with Arteta likely to revert back to his preferred XI. That should bring back the control that has been such a theme of Arsenal’s performances this season, but going forward Arteta needs his supporting cast to step up.
Fabio Vieira’s performance on Thursday suggested he could do just that, with the midfielder setting up the opener. Only Bukayo Saka has more assists for Arsenal this season. Arteta praised Vieira after, describing him as “a player that I absolutely love”. As the games come thick and fast now, the challenge for the rest of the players is to have Arteta saying the same things about them.