Arsenal display their problem-solving properties once more after Sporting fightback

Dave Tickner

Arsenal led and trailed before leaving Lisbon with a perfectly acceptable draw from the first leg of their Europa League clash with Sporting.


It gets bad press in this country, but the Europa really does provide pretty consistently decent entertainment.

Specifically in the case of this enormously fun Europa League last-16 game between Sporting and Arsenal, decent entertainment that is entirely at odds with the absolute shitshow that was last night’s Champions League last-16 game between Spurs and Milan.

Both these teams appear worlds apart from those drab and dreadful teams, but of course, neither Arsenal nor Sporting can really grumble about it because both have only themselves to blame for being here rather than there. Spurs were only in the Champions League because Arsenal collapsed last season, and Spurs were only in the last 16 as group winners because Sporting shat that particular bed in a grand manner.

This game was tremendous fun, though, and it ends with the tie very much alive albeit tilted in Arsenal’s favour thanks to a fortuitous equaliser that involved a massive deflection and could on another day have been lost to VAR due to a foul in the build-up.

A draw felt like the right result for a game in which both teams attacked with verve and menace, Arsenal predictably offering their own aggressive response to the idea that the scrapping of the away-goals rule has made visiting teams more cautious.

Arsenal vs Sporting Lisbon

But what made the game truly entertaining was that this attacking intent was combined with defending that wasn’t bad exactly, but was a bit seat-of-the-pants. A lot of it felt chaotic and a great deal of it was distinctly last-ditch.

Both teams will be aggrieved at the nature of the opening goals they conceded. Both came from set-pieces where defenders went AWOL and all evening Arsenal were playing with a significant handicap of an uncertain goalkeeper short of match practice in Matt Turner. His uncertainty appeared to leak into the players in front of him, and never more obviously than in a Sporting equaliser where a corner led to a free header with Turner starting to come, inexplicably changing his mind and leaving a bamboozled Jakub Kawior ducking underneath the ball as it came across goal.

Having trailed Sporting led early in the second half before Arsenal levelled again. Which is very Arsenal at the moment.

They are in general not quite as good as they were early in the season. That’s not really a criticism, because earlier in the season they were absurdly good and it was unlikely those levels were ever sustainable for a team that hadn’t produced that kind of consistent excellence for at least a decade.

Some kind of shift from that sustained opposition-crushing machine-like progress was inevitable, and it was always going to be a slight falling off. On that basis, turning into a team that occasionally makes life unnecessarily difficult for itself but then nearly always extricates itself from this self-inflicted situation is… good, actually

And for the neutral, it’s also tremendous. There is pretty much no Arsenal game that isn’t worth watching right now, and while Arsenal fans could probably do with a few quietly straightforward wins to keep stress levels manageable, for the rest of us the chaos is most welcome.

The Europa is an interesting puzzle for the Gunners now. They are the best team left in it and the opportunity to end a 30-year wait for a European pot is obvious. But it is also clearly secondary to what has unexpectedly become the target for this season.

There are so many games to cram in over the next two months, and Arsenal’s potential depth issues have been bubbling under the surface all season. While the performances here of Fabio Vieira and Reiss Nelson offer significant encouragement, those of Turner and Kawior present an undeniable cause for concern.

Arsenal should be fine going forward no matter what happens. With Gabriel Jesus close to a return there are enough permutations available to manage things through a hectic run-in. There does not appear to be quite the same luxury at the back, though, which is why Arsenal’s mentality is so important.

Their defensive frailties (and these things are all relative) saw an opportunity to take full charge of this tie squandered; their attacking ability and confidence saw the sudden threat of losing control of things altogether averted.

Overall, then, another satisfactory evening in a season increasingly full of them. And with further obstacles on that run-in inevitable, it does no harm to offer another example of the ability to solve such problems.