Mikel Arteta tried to get the balance right in Lisbon. In the 2-2 draw, he made six changes to his starting XI from the dramatic win over Bournemouth but still started the likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, William Saliba, Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko. This was not a second string Arsenal side by any means, which brings us to one question - is the Spaniard doing the right thing?
The Premier League run-in is going to be utterly draining. We haven’t even reached the ten games to go mark and it already feels like Arsenal are on the ropes, fighting for their lives with last minute winners. What the club doesn't need - is any distraction. Which is exactly what the Europa League is.
This two-legged tie is nothing more than a pain in the arse for every Arsenal fan. This competition isn’t going to bring them anything - even if they win it. They are already going to be in the Champions League next term, and if they don’t win the Premier League title, this competition is guaranteed to take some of the blame.
- Jon Dahl Tomasson on tradition and Ancelotti
- How Birmingham City descended into chaos
- Conte and Tottenham need to part ways - now
If they win both trophies this season, the Europa League will pale into insignificance. Gunners fans won’t talk about the double they won, they will talk about the season they won the Premier League title, against all the odds. That truly, is all that matters this term and they are twelve games away from that goal.
So making half the first team play in the Europa League feels like a mistake. It’s not only energy sapping, but confidence sapping. The defence, which featured three out of the four usual starters, looked shaky again in front of Matt Turner, who was mistake prone on the night.
Saka has already played so much football this term, including the World Cup, so getting him to play 90 minutes here seems utterly pointless. If it was about winning the tie in the first leg and showing serious intent to win the trophy, Arteta should have gone full strength. If he wanted to prioritise the Premier League, he should have played a second XI.
This halfway house suited nobody.
Despite taking the lead after William Saliba rose highest to power home a header midway through the first half, Arsenal then fell apart. They’ve conceded three goals since the World Cup from corners, and Gonçalo Ignacio made it four as he headed in from an Marcus Edwards corner. Matt Turner was left in no man’s land as the hosts equalised.
In the second half of what was a hotly-contested encounter, Sporting went in front again. Paulinho turned in a rebound from close range and an Arsenal defence that has looked so shaky in recent weeks, was leaking goals yet again.
They’ve now conceded ten in their last six matches, and that simply won’t win your titles or trophies. To their credit they came back, although they needed a slice of luck as Xhaka’s deflected effort got past Antonio Adán to level the tie.
Thomas Partey and Gabriel came off the bench, while Arsenal managed to get out of the Portuguese capital with a draw. It’s a result Arteta will be happy with, but it still leaves them with plenty of work to do next week. That’s work they won’t want to do if they have their hearts set on the Premier League title.