Morning folks and welcome to match day. Hope we’re all good? Inexplicably and completely without any intention, I grabbed the first football shirt that I could find in my wardrobe last night to wear today for work (desk jockey who can work from home, so I pretty much wear what I want when I’m not leaving the house for the day) and would you believe it, but it is a Portuguese national team jersey that my mum brought back from the Algarve a couple of years back.
I don’t know whether to take that as a good or bad omen that I’m donning those colours on an evening when The Arsenal travel to Lisbon.
Perhaps it is a good sign. Let’s choose that to be the case, because the match tonight against Sporting Lisbon could very well be one in which Arsenal put one foot in the next round, experience a tough evening against a well-known and respected European force, or have an absolute mare and leave a lot to do back at the Emirates next Thursday. Of course we all hope for the former of these rather than the latter. But there needs to be careful consideration taken to tonight’s opponents. They will be hopeful of causing an upset and I’m sure a certain Hector Bellerin will be keen to prove to his former club that he still has plenty to give and is a man who can still do damage in top flite football.
I don’t want to jinx it either, but our record against Portuguese clubs is good. In 2021 we beat Benfica in the round of 16 on our way to the final, we picked up a draw and win against Vitoria Guimaraes in 2019, whilst also beating Sporting away in the Europa League group stages in 2018. In face you have to go back to 2010 to see our last defeat, which was n Porto in the quarter finals of the Champions League first leg, the second of which we went through after winning 5-0 at home. So we have a decent record. But there have been some really tricky matches that we have nearly come-a-cropper on. It fact if you look at our last few results in Portugal, the record isn’t that great; in the last six games in Portugal itself it reads:
- Won = 1
- Drawn = 2
- Lost = 4
So whilst our record overall appears to be pretty good (in 12 matches we’ve won seven, drawn three, lost four), it is the home matches that has propped up that record going back to 2008. Which is why I don’t think Arteta will be taking much for granted this evening.
I also think it is why he might go stronger than many of us think tonight, because I wonder if he wants to at least get a big part of the job done, knowing that we have the strength of our home form to see us through and then potentially resting a few more players given the game state. I don’t think we’re talking a full strength team here; I expect Turner to start in goal, Tomiyasu to get another run out, probably Jorginho too, but I wonder if that may well be the extent to which he rotates this evening. It’s just a hunch I have.
He could of course make a case for a number of changes. You know me, I love a bit of rotation for games like this and I’d have Turner in goal, Tomiyasu at right back, Kiwior instead of Gabriel, Zinchenko has to start because KT is supposedly suffering with an illness (otherwise I’d have him in), Jorginho, Fabio Vieira (although apparently he’s not too well either by the sounds of it), Odegaard, Nelson, Smith Rowe and Martinelli up top in the absence of anyone else. That would be a rotation of seven players out of the 11 but I have a feeling he’ll go with:
Tomiyasu – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko
Odegaard – Xhaka
Saka – Martinelli – Smith Rowe
Maybe there’s a case for Nelson starting, but given Smith Rowe got 50 minutes and he’s the guy they’re more invested in (longer term deal and clearly the player with a bigger future than Nelson at the club), I’d expect him to start and maybe share minutes with Nelson, perhaps by Reiss coming on for the last 20 or something like that. Either way at least we have options. Of course the biggest option which we may or may not have available, is that of Gabriel Jesus, who Arteta deliberately avoided the question on when asked about whether he has travelled to Portugal, neither confirming or denying his place at the club. I would have thought at least somebody would have snapped him if he was in Portugal, but I guess if they put an afro wig, massive shades and made him don a fat suit when heading to the team hotel, then people might not have noticed. But I would be surprised if he’s even on the bench tonight. Maybe he could be, but with the intention of him not really starting or playing any part. Maybe the aim is just to get him back in to the swing of the match day preparations and if he’s in full training now I suspect that might mean he makes the bench against Fulham at the weekend, which in itself would be a massive boost for everyone.
In terms of how the game might go, I think these types of games are always difficult to assess when you don’t really know the opponent very well and the stats can’t really tell you anything. It is quite obvious that the Portuguese league is weaker than the Premier League, so if you look at something like FBref you’re going to get skewed data; Sporting have 48 goals from an expected goal ratio of 47 this season, they have the most progressive carries in the league, they have the second most progressive passes, they have the third fewest shots taken against them in the league. But at the weekend they played Portimonense away and beat them 1-0 with 67% possession, 20 attempts at goal and made 630 passes. That isn’t happening – I hope anyway – this evening. They will know they can’t drive forward and leave too much space in behind because Arsenal should be able to punish them in a way Portimonense can’t. So I’m loathed to make any kind of predictions about how this match will unfold.
What we do know is that Sporting won’t – I don’t think – go in to a low block formation and try to camp on the edge of their box. They should be a little more adventurous and hopefully that means our lads can take advantage.
And let’s hope that we do, because it would be nice to get a win, take that back to the Emirates and try to get through to the next round of this European competition.
Catch you all tomorrow for a debrief.