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

Football is always the same sport, but in the Champions League knockout stages it is so often a different game. A different feel, a different flow and a different test for sides like 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 has an Arsenal team reached the knockout stages 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 this dreary match went 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 that 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.

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

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 round of 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 judgement by Gabriel Martinelli – naivety, perhaps – led to Porto snatching a spectacular winner.

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,” said Arteta. “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.

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

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.

The overriding feeling, as Porto celebrated Galeno’s remarkable winner, was therefore 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.