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    5. Naive Arsenal still lack common sense in Europe


    Naive Arsenal still lack common sense in Europe

    Serdar Gozubuyuk stopped the game due to 36 fouls in 90 minutes. Photo: Reuters/Pedro Nunez

    Football is always the same sport, but in the knockout stages of the Champions League there is often a different game. A different feeling, a different flow and a different challenge for teams like Arsenal, who arrived at this level of Europe's premier tournament with virtually zero experience of playing football and served like this.

    Not since 2017. With Arsenal through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, few of Mikel Arteta's players have felt what it's like to be frustrated and annoyed on those glamorous midweek evenings. Arteta himself, of course, has never lived this as a manager before.

    And as the gloomy match plunged into the Portuguese night, the minutes dragging on without anything of note, it would have been painfully obvious to Arteta that his players had failed to find their usual rhythm. Arsenal are a team that plays in patterns and waves, gaining momentum and overwhelming their opponents. Here it was all fits and starts, and Porto was always breathing.

    Porto handled this game much better than Arsenal, breaking it down at every opportunity. The unusual number of free kicks was a source of irritation for Arteta and his players, who spent much of the second half angrily waving their arms at referee Serdar Gozübuyuk. It didn't do them any good.

    “I think when you play European teams, obviously they will play and be very different from the English teams,” said Declan Rice. “Referees are really different. You can't get away with much in European ties.”

    A total of 36 fouls were recorded (22 of them by Arsenal). It was the highest number of fouls in any Champions League game this season. All those stops resulted in the ball being in play for just 52 percent of the match, which is by far the lowest percentage in the last 16 games. Every time football started, it immediately stopped.

    Apparently, this is exactly what Porto wanted. Arsenal had the responsibility to overcome these obstacles and impose their game. They never did before a late error by Gabriel Martinelli (perhaps naively) saw Porto, led by 40-year-old centre-back Pepe, snatch an impressive win.

    “I think the last minute probably had to do with some inexperience,” midfielder Rice said. “It just probably needs a little more savvy in terms of – [it’s] the 93rd minute, you look at the clock, the score is 0-0, we gave the ball away twice on the edge of the box and then he [Galeno] bends one high boxes. So we need to have a little bit of gumption to see the game through because if you can't win, definitely don't lose. Especially in a knockout game.”

    Pepe is a veteran of disappointment Photo: Getty Images/Diogo Cardoso

    Arsenal were particularly disappointed by Porto's approach to set pieces. Arteta's side are a constant threat from dead ball situations and regularly dominate their Premier League opponents with corners and free kicks. Porto's tactics to counter these weapons were simple: wait for any contact from Arsenal players in the penalty area and then hit the ground.

    At one point, three Porto players collapsed on the turf in their six-meter penalty area, clutching their heads. Inevitably they were awarded a free kick. “Every time we touched someone it seemed like a foul before we even kicked the ball,” Arteta said. “But we will learn and achieve more.”

    Arsenal, it must be said, did not always help their cause. Because of these set-pieces, they often took time to get the ball into the penalty area. This may have been a more minor issue than the number of fouls called during the game, but it all contributed to the game being dull and slow.

    When asked whether Porto were capable of breaking it up, the game became a source of irritation for his team, Arteta said: “That’s the context of the game. This is something we knew about and what we need to prepare for. This is something that the judge has to manage. There's nothing we can do about it and we'll have to deal with it and play our game.”

    The brutal truth is that the best teams in the Champions League know how to deal with these situations. That's what experience brings and that's what Arsenal are missing right now. Of their team in Portugal, only Kai Havertz and Jorginho have spent a significant amount of time at this level of club football. The rest are learning as they go.

    Mikel Arteta's growing frustration outside the game was palpable. Photo: AP Photo/Luis Vieira

    “I think you look at a lot of their players on the pitch, especially Pepe, with his experience in matches like this,” Rice said. “You look at our team, we are such a young group. Some of us haven't played in the Champions League before, so we have to learn on the job.”

    The overriding feeling as Porto celebrated Galeno's outstanding win was that the better team had lost, but the smarter team won. Being smart is especially helpful at this level. Arsenal have been taught a lesson in this regard and need to learn from it quickly.

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