Arsenal 1-1 Sporting (3-3 on aggregate, Sporting win 5-3 on penalties) (Xhaka 19′, Goncalves 62′)
Mikel Arteta enjoys a psychological ploy nearly as much as mentor Pep Guardiola. His players celebrated the weekend’s victory with a clock – a copy of the one sitting above the Emirates’ Clock End – in the dressing room, and a countdown to their 11 remaining league games. The Arsenal bench are now called “impactors”, not substitutes.
Whole books have been written about Guardiola and his “high-performance culture”, and if Arteta ever gets the same treatment, his handling of Granit Xhaka could have its own chapter. The plan was to turn him into a box-to-box midfielder. It is half-working, as seen in the good, the bad and the erratic of his performance against Sporting as Gabriel Martinelli’s missed spot-kick meant Arsenal exited the Europa League on penalties, leaving their season entirely dependent on the Premier League title race.
Xhaka recently credited Arteta with keeping him here after he was stripped of the captaincy (rightly, following his notorious outburst towards the fans) under Unai Emery. Even if Arsenal sign Declan Rice this summer, the midfielder he could replace is motivated enough to be on the verge of signing a new deal.
It started so well too, his goal looking like a vindication of those plans to extend that contract. He was in the right place for the rebound from Gabriel Martinelli’s effort, topping it off with a wholesome celebration for his two-year-old daughter. The finish was impressive and he has never scored as many goals as he has this season. Best of all it spoke once again of his anticipation. At Fulham, it was an inexplicable pass to Bukayo Saka that went one way, then the other.
The fact he was booked on the stroke of half time for clumsily taking down Fransisco Trincao does not need to ring too many alarm bells – or it wouldn’t have, had he not got himself in a needless late altercation. Xhaka was once made out to be on par with the Kray twins in terms of gratuitous weekend violence in the capital; this season he is averaging just over a foul every other game.
He even survived an encounter with Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who is venturing into Mike Dean territory when it comes to celebrity refs. If you thought you recognised him, you’re probably still bearing the emotional scars of the World Cup – he of Netherlands-Argentina fame, when he showed 15 yellow cards, one red and essentially allowed the tie to disintegrate into a brawl.
It is just as well Xhaka is no longer just an enforcer, but defensively his role needs work. Had he not played Jorginho into trouble, Pedro Goncalves (no, it wasn’t Nayim) would never have received the ball on the halfway line, spotted Aaron Ramsdale off his line, or scored one of the most extraordinary goals you’ll see from such a range.
Xhaka and Jorginho should not be judged too harshly. Jorginho’s through ball for the opener was sublime, and Xhaka delivered the goal, but as a midfield this does not function. Nor did the inclusion of Fabio Vieira. Sporting had their own woes there, Manuel Ugarte sent off in extra time.
What Arsenal did get right was ensuring there were the right conditions around Xhaka. Arteta played another mental masterstroke by handing his once alienated operator the armband, and Gabriel Jesus’ return helped too. Inevitably, when team-mates went looking for him, the Brazilian who hasn’t started since November was often found a yard short. Jesus’ best work came slightly deeper, making runs in behind Ousmane Diomande.
It seems meaningless to talk of his comeback as shifting the balance in the title race– there is no point trying to compare forwards when Erling Haaland scored as many goals on Tuesday as Jesus has for the Gunners, although he offers far more than goals.
It would have been easy for the striker to stay at Manchester City and mop up gongs year after year. Arteta encourages an environment where players like Jesus can better themselves and improve others around them.
Xhaka, likewise, has made progress. No longer the hot-head, but a father of two, which lends itself to a role of nurturing leadership that once seemed impossible. Once, he idly boasted of being given the keys to his parents’ house despite being the youngest brother – the grown-up Xhaka took a long time to emerge but there are glimpses. The ingredients should be there for him to thrive at both ends.
It is up to Arteta the coach, not just the man-manager, to finish the job.