Arsenal produce one of their worst displays under Mikel Arteta in Porto loss

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This was not the occasion for Arsenal to produce one of their worst performances in four years under Mikel Arteta.

On their long-awaited return to the knock-out stages of the Champions League they fell to a deserved defeat – and it could have been worse – against a struggling Porto who had come into this tie expecting to limit the damage rather than inflict it.

They were led by Pepe, who, 41 in five days, is the oldest player ever to appear at this stage of this competition. Having featured in 120 Champions League games the defender also had more appearances than the Arsenal starting XI combined.

Those were supposed to be statistics in favour of Arteta’s free-flowing, free-scoring, confident young side. Instead they turned into an indictment of their callow inexperience, lack of nous and apparent inability to cope with the stakes.

Pepe barely had to break sweat as Porto collected an unexpected clean sheet. For the first time in two years, Arsenal failed to register a single effort on target. The closest they came was a header over from Gabriel deep into injury-time.

“We lacked threat. We lacked aggression, especially with the ball in the final third. We can do better,” Arteta lamented.

The Gabriel header came seconds before Porto scored. Arsenal were again guilty as they surrendered possession on no fewer than three occasions – much to Arteta’s anger – and then Declan Rice failed to close down Galeno who, instead, use him as a shield to bend a right-foot shot from 25 yards that left David Raya grasping at air.

It was a moment of brilliant redemption for the Brazilian who had committed an appalling, glaring miss in the first-half when he shot against the post from six yards and then shot wide when he collected the rebound even closer to goal.

The crowd even celebrated – before realising the ball had not actually gone in the net – with Galeno left holding his header for many, many seconds in utter disbelief.

Two-nil and Arsenal would have been in real danger. Even with this score-line they can have no complaints. They were sluggish, disjointed and lacked any kind of threat. It was a bad night for their attackers and creative players while their defence, which has been so strong of late, appeared strangely vulnerable.

It was also a bad night for Arteta. Tactically he struggled against Porto’s press while he only used one substitute, a defensive midfielder Jorginho, even though there was no attacking impetus.

Having not reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League for 14 years, it was not the time for Arsenal to produce a stinker. But they did. Back then they overcame Porto, having also lost the first leg in Portugal, so the omens are good.

Even in defeat here they will still believe they can go through because they surely cannot play as badly as this at the Emirates. Or can they? Because it almost appeared the occasion was too much for them.

They may cling on to another statistic: each of the last five teams to beat Porto in the knock-out stages of the Champions League have reached the final. But the possibility of Arsenal being the sixth appears fanciful on this form.

The tone was set inside the first 90 seconds with Rice allowing a loose pass to go beyond him and then lunging to foul Galeno. He was booked. After that, time after time, passes went astray with both William Saliba and Ben White failing to control the ball and letting it run out of play.

Porto had obviously done their homework. They know the threat Arsenal pose from set-pieces and, with gamesmanship, bought themselves free-kicks of their own under challenges. It did not help Arsenal’s cause though that both Rice and Bukayo Saka took an eternity to deliver the ball.

Mention of Saka highlighted another who disappointed. As did Gabriel Martinelli and Leandro Trossard while, on his return to the stadium where he scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the 2021 Champions League Final, Kai Havertz was anonymous bar a header. He was substituted.

“You need to have much more aggression, you need to break lines, to play forward and generate much more threat,” Arteta said. “In the second-half there were much better things and we generated a lot of situations, without really creating much from it.”
There was more urgency after the break but it was a stretch to claim Arsenal “generated a lot of situations”. They just did not while Arteta will have to ponder whether he can persist with Jakub Kiwior in the return leg as he was clearly targeted at left-back.

Having failed in their last seven attempts to go through this round Arsenal will believe they can do it – and they should – but this was a wake-up call for their ambition. As Arteta put it: “If you cannot win, you don’t lose.”

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