The Europa League will not be the competition that defines Arsenal’s season but away from the pressure of the title race, Mikel Arteta still could have done with an easier night than this. After making six changes to his team to face Sporting , the Arsenal manager saw an evening of control and authority in Lisbon slip into the highly entertaining chaos of a knockout tie. After a 2-2 draw, next week’s deciding second leg will fall in between Premier League fixtures against Fulham and Crystal Palace, where Arteta’s priorities should clearly lie.
Arteta took the chance to rest key players, including Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Aaron Ramsdale, and a strange game at the Estádio José Alvalade was rather summed up by Arsenal being bright and sharp in attack while simultanously sloppy in defence. The stand-in goalkeeper Matt Turner had a particularly difficult evening and was rusty on his first appearance in six weeks. After failing to command his penalty area at a corner, allowing Goncalo Inacio to head in Sporting’s equaliser from less than six yards, the American pushed the ball back into danger for Paulinho’s second-half rebound.
Arsenal showed resilience to come back and rescue a draw. Gabriel Martinelli, who has been revived after being taken out of the team by Arteta, was outstanding while Fabio Vieira, who is now the only Arsenal player to have featured in every Europa Leage fixture this season, produced another promising display. Martinelli was particularly threatening and almost scored one of the goals of the season with a solo run from the halfway line, only to be denied by Jeremiah St. Juste.
It came as Paulinho had fired Sporting into the lead and the midfielder then wasted a glorious chance to add a third after being played through on goal. Paulinho’s finish was wild and over the bar and Arsenal received a further slice of fortune as Granit Xhaka’s long-range shot took a wicked deflection off the back of Sporting’s Hidemasa Morita. The goal had been coming, with Martinelli and Vieira also denied by the goalkeeper Adan in a ferocious period of play after half time.
Quite how Arsenal found themselves in that position following their start is certain to be examined by Arteta, who watched on with a worried look at times. It is certainly a concern that Sporting added to the list of set-piece goals Arsenal have conceded since the turn of the year. They made it at least four with the Gunners also conceding from either a corner or a free kick against Everton, Brentford and Bournemouth in recent weeks.
Arsenal had strolled through the opening half hour with the authority and fluency of league leaders, only to lose their way. It can of course be put down to the changes Arteta made, although the Spaniard surely could not have taken any other approach given Arsenal’s position in the title race. Arteta has shown such consistency with his team in the Premier League, with eight players featuring in all 26 matches but it is clearly unsustainable to continue with that approach in Europe.
Turner’s performance can be put down to rust, as well as the simple and obvious fact that the 28-year-old is not anywhere near Aaron Ramsdale’s level. It should not give Arsenal fans much to worry about, unless Ramsdale suffers an injury over the final 12 games campaign.
It does, though, highlight the importance of Arteta’s squad players being ready to come in and make an impact when required, as they head into such an important spell of the season. Reiss Nelson showed that with his stunning match-winning display from the bench against Bournemouth last weekend. The winger earned a start in Lisbon but was unable to reach another high point here.
Vieira, making his second consecutive start on his return to Portugal, continued to show that he is ready to play a part. It was his corner that set up William Saliba’s opener - a goal that was as soft as the one conceded by Arsenal moments later - amid a bright performance. Vieira and Martinelli interchanged menacingly at times while Buakyo Saka - who lasted the 90 minutes dispute the upcoming trip to Fulham on Sunday - was quiet. Jakub Kiwior was handed his debut following his £16m January move from Spezia and for the Poland international, at least his appearance wasn’t as memorable as Turner’s.
Sporting showed enough to suggest they will make the return leg awkward at the Emirates next week. They had won four games in a row prior to hosting Arsenal but their disappointing season was reflected in the swathes of empty seats in Lisbon. Their performance deserved more support. Marcus Edwards, the former Tottenham talent, was again a standout and if Arsenal are not careful they may be upset next week. The Premier League remains their priority but Arsenal will need more cohesion if they are to remain in Europe this season.