Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes must survive defensive injuries and the shock of a European humbling
Before Arsenal were eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday night, the big screens at the Emirates lit up the flickering of Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Sol Campbell.
The great Arsenal championship sides were built on great centre-backs – good to watch but just as unbreakable and resilient.
No matter how you paint it, that defeat hurt Arsenal. Both in a practical sense, with William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu both falling out through injury within 21 minutes, and in less tangible ways. There was a hushed resignation among their fans as they left Holloway Road in quiet disappointment – there was no real anger, just concern for what might lie ahead.
Ask Aaron Ramsdale, who was caught off his line as Pedro Goncalves equalized and failed to save one of Sporting’s penalties, if he considered the result a stroke of luck ahead of the title win. Or Gabriel Martinelli, aged 21 now bearing the scars of a crucial missed penalty, with another chance for this young group to lift a first trophy that fizzles out as suddenly as the glowing green of pyrotechnics from a euphoric away game.
Arsenal have 11 ‘finals’ to ensure their European demise will be no more than a footnote in a historic campaign. It risks being far more than that if it’s remembered as the night defensive wheels started falling off.
Mikel Arteta depends on Saliba. For the duration of his three-year loan in France, Arsenal fans begged the club for his return. Whether his influence is due to luck rather than good foresight is up for debate.
The thought of Arsenal now potentially having to play an alarming string of games (Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea play in their next seven games) without him won’t sit well with Arteta. He said the Frenchman felt “uncomfortable” leaving the pitch. Saliba wasn’t wearing a harness when he left the ground, but Tomiyasu was on crutches, with Arteta describing his injury as “looking pretty serious”.
Ben White will be setting Tomiyasu’s injury aside for now – had Arteta actually left at full speed he probably would have started anyway – but here lies one of the first big tests of Arsenal’s strength. Luckily, it starts with a trip to Crystal Palace, who don’t score goals. There goes that serendipity again. There’s always a risk of that changing with a ‘new managerial change’ but whether they have an immediate replacement in mind for Patrick Vieira is unclear in the hours following his surprise sacking.
White has a point to prove, at least against Gareth Southgate, who has been left out of the England squad for the forthcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers. Why he was sent home early from the World Cup is not public knowledge and his international future remains unclear. Take away white and Arsenal are left with no recognized right-back.
Subtract Saliba and you’re still stuck with Gabriel Magalhaes, but he’s suddenly joined by Rob Holding. Over the course of the season, when Holding has played, he has managed a fifth of Saliba’s Premier League passing stats and around an eighth of his tackle success.
Edu, the club’s sporting director, was well advised to bring in another centre-back in Jakub Kiwior, given his versatility, ability to play in midfield and fitting into Arteta’s model of developing young defenders. However, the first leg at Sporting was his debut and it didn’t go well. Kiwior was widely criticized for allowing Goncalo Inacio a free header for the opening goal.
It was no great tragedy that this squad was looking a little worn in the Europa League. Arsenal would have liked to have won it but will take comfort in not having to fly around the continent for Thursday night games, which are followed by even tougher Sundays in the title race – but that title race has become everything if it wasn’t already.
Arteta was powerless to stop the physical beatings of a grueling, grueling night. The real test that will make or break Arsenal as potential champions is whether he can protect them from the emotional ones.