Arsenal expose set piece weakness again in Europa League draw to Sporting CP. Is it a problem?
Arsenal’s Europa League last-16 tie with Sporting Lisbon is finely poised after the Gunners secured a 2-2 draw in Thursday’s first leg at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.
William Saliba opened the scoring with a 22nd-minute header from Fábio Vieira’s corner before Sporting scored a similar goal at the other end 12 minutes later as Gonçalo Inácio glanced home Marcus Edwards’ delivery.
Paulinho gave the home side the lead 10 minutes after the restart before Gabriel Martinelli almost scored a sublime solo goal, dribbling from inside his own half and rounding Sporting goalkeeper Antonio Adan, only for Jeremiah St. Juste to make a last-ditch intervention. Arsenal restored parity on 62 minutes when Sporting CP’s Hidemasa Morita suffered the misfortune of diverting Granit Xhaka’s pass into his own net.
The second leg takes place next Thursday with Arsenal hoping they can secure their place in the quarterfinals for the fourth time in six seasons.
1. Arteta brings changes but Arsenal maintain push on two fronts
They required a couple of slices of luck — none more so than their second equaliser ricocheting off Morita via a hopeful aggressive pass from Xhaka. But Arsenal will be confident of finishing the job in front of their own fans next week to reach the quarterfinals.
It would have been reasonable to think in August that the Europa League was one of Arsenal’s best chances of success, but now that they have a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League, changes to the starting line-up were perhaps inevitable with Fulham to come in league play on Sunday.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
– Read on ESPN+: Ranking Prem teams’ top-4 chances
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta made six alterations here, partly informed by illness striking Martin Odegaard and Kieran Tierney while Leandro Trossard (groin) and Eddie Nketiah (ankle) also left back in London. And despite a flurry of excitement, Gabriel Jesus also did not travel as he nears a return from knee surgery.
Jakub Kiwior was handed his debut while Reiss Nelson came into the line-up after his last-minute heroics against Bournemouth at the weekend. There was inevitably a little less fluidity to Arsenal’s play — especially with so many key players, including Gabriel, Thomas Partey and Odegaard, not involved from kickoff — and at 2-1 down, Paulinho missed a glorious chance to give the tie a completely different complexion.
But as it is, a draw with home advantage to come makes the Gunners favourites to reach the last eight.
2. Vieira performance a mixed bag, but one to build from
Only Bukayo Saka (nine) has provided more assists in all competitions this season for Arsenal than Vieira’s six.
Vieira latest was simple enough: a corner swung onto the head of Saliba. The other opponents he has assists against — Bodo/Glimt, Oxford United Wolves and Aston Villa — are perhaps symptomatic of the limited opportunities he has had to impress so far.
On what was only his 12th start, Vieira was not able to dictate play with the same authority as Odegaard — the player he was effectively replacing. He completed 31 of his 39 passes, but only 67% of those were in the final third.
Further improvement is needed but there are signs of encouragement for the 22-year-old to build on.
3. Set-pieces threaten to become an issue for Arsenal
The two first-half goals were very similar in construction — a close-range header from a corner — and it is not the first time Arsenal have looked vulnerable on set pieces in recent weeks.
It was the sixth goal they have conceded from dead-ball situations, seven if you count Bournemouth’s kickoff routine that led to a goal in nine seconds last weekend. Manchester United, Everton, Brentford, Bournemouth and now Sporting have also benefited from Arsenal’s weakness on set plays.