Arsenal's ugly side: A gritty Champions League win showed Mikel Arteta's side have what it takes to win it all



By the exceptional standards they set for themselves in late January and February, Arsenal were ordinary at best across the two hours that led to their dramatic penalty shootout win over Porto in the Champions League round of 16. Then again, no team can routinely hit heights where they turn up at the houses of Premier League opponents, smash the place up and leave with their goal difference swollen to the tune of five or more.

When the stakes were as high as Tuesday night, Arsenal were not going to be the free scoring force they have been on the domestic scene, particularly against an opponent as joyously mean-spirited at Porto. It is often said that the mark of a true champion is to win ugly. There might be a kernel of truth surrounded by cliche, but perhaps it is better to say that even when the best teams are off their game, their performances tend to be the sort that translate into victories.

That is just about what Arsenal managed to deliver against an opponent who delivered the sort of defensive masterclass that ought to have been beyond Pepe (the older one) half a decade ago. Porto’s mid block would be beaten in one of only a handful of ways. The Gunners could try the clipped ball over the top that delivered one of the night’s numerous nearly moments, Ben White playing through Kai Havertz, whose grappling with Pepe was enough to see a goal ruled out when Martin Odegaard converted after the ball had broken loose.

Such moments are easier to enact in theory than in practice. For starters, Porto’s line was generally not quite as near the halfway line as it was in this instance, and even when it crept higher it did so in unison, most impressively when they sprung forwards to counter a 20th minute free kick from the right where three Arsenal players were caught offside when trying to sneak back on. Executing these pinged passes is tough even for players of White’s quality, all the more so when a man in blue and white is hurtling towards you, because this was an opponent that could chase high and drop deep. Porto’s on ball pressure was exceptional, Odegaard in particular facing an almighty scrap just to turn and face goal. Only against Tottenham has the captain completed so few passes in 90 minutes this season.

More often than not Arsenal were forced wide to the flanks, naturally gravitating to the right as they so often do, all the more so with Gabriel Martinelli absent. Usually that would be no worry for the Gunners, but Wendell did as good a job on Bukayo Saka as anyone has in recent years. Galeno would give Ben White the pass up the byline in the knowledge that Wendell would be hanging off the back of Saka’s jersey. It was all too rare that Arsenal’s No.7 would be able to turn and advance the balls big distances into the penalty area. Perhaps the bright lights of a European night inhibited Saka to some extent. Surely not as much as Wendell did.

“It was very difficult to get constant momentum in the game, with the way they play, credit to them,” said Arteta. “We knew that that was going to be the case, we had to be really patient and emotionally controlled, and wait for the moments. We were going to have moments and, in those moments, we had to put them away and we’ve done that.”

The home side had to scratch out every yard of turf they found but they did exactly that, registering 44 touches in the attacking penalty area to Porto’s 18. All 13 of their shots can from within the box, only four of them headed, the vast majority coming from open play rather than dead balls.

The 33 penalty box touches Arsenal had in normal time was 10 more than the average in a Champions League match this season, more than Real Madrid managed when they put four past Napoli or indeed than they themselves registered when they smashed six goals into the Lyon net. Turning that penalty box pressure into good quality chances was a slog, but for most of the match Porto had eight or nine outfield players camped in the immediate confines of their penalty area. Getting into shooting positions required eye of the needle stuff, the sort that Odegaard delivered in quite spectacular fashion for Leandro Trossard’s goal.

That wasn’t all the excellence, particularly from the skipper, and not all of Arsenal’s best moments were reflected in their 0.92 expected goals (xG). Odegaard’s pirouetting in the box might have earned him a penalty on another day, while only a brilliant clearing header by Pepe denied Havertz the simplest of headers at the back post. Gabriel Jesus sparked life into the attack early on when he came off the bench, drawing one smart save from Diogo Costa before three deft touches got Arsenal flying up the pitch for a move where he, Odegaard and Saka all might have scored.

Arsenal players would be the first to admit they were not at their free-flowing best, as Saka noted amid the jubilance of the final whistle. “It was not the best performance for me personally, but I am so proud of the team,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a special night. We showed a lot of character and to win on penalties is amazing for the spirit. We are just happy to be going through.”

This might have been a struggle in the final third but at the other end Arsenal were as serene as ever. You have to go back to May 2023 for the last time this side gave up more than 1.5 xG in a single game. Indeed the first leg of this tie was the only match in 2024 where Arsenal have allowed more than one expected goal and that was overwhelmingly due to Galeno’s stunning double miss. Porto got next to nothing this time around, their two best efforts tame shots from around the edge of the box by Evanilson and Francisco Conceicao. Porto endeavoured to stretch their hosts on counters but William Saliba, Gabriel and increasingly Jakub Kiwior eat fast breaks for breakfast.

There was always something of the hot streak to Arsenal’s run of form in front of goal recently, much as there was a bit of coolness in their numbers around Christmas. Defensively there is no such waxing and waning, this is a unit that has drilled excellence into themselves. They play like a team who instinctively know that ludicrous xG streak they are on, who are acutely aware that when Saliba, Gabriel and Declan Rice start Arsenal give up an average of 0.63 non-penalty xG. There was a composure that started at the back and runs through this side even when Porto did what they do better than anyone else, grinding the opposition’s gears. Just before half time a kerfuffle on half way had Saliba briefly rushing forward to stand by Rice. The youngster caught himself in an instant, realizing his yellow card status would be used against him by Porto. Meanwhile Jorginho and Odegaard were counselling Rice to avoid the booking that would have ruled him out of the second leg. 

That is the same Rice who had spent 89 minutes on a yellow in the first meeting with Porto without losing his cool. Gabriel did the same on Saturday when Brentford tried to probe at him. For a young side venturing into their own uncharted territory in the Champions League knockout stages, their cool has been admirable.

All of this might not have added up to a victory across the 210 minutes of the tie — one decided by impressive shootout qualities that have been an undercurrent for the Gunners last two seasons — but this particular journey to the quarterfinals ultimately tells us more about Arsenal than another rout of a win might have. The very best teams, even Manchester City at their most relentless, can’t steamroll opposition on a weekly basis. There needs to be something to fall back on on those days when the attack doesn’t click into gear. Indeed in the Champions League in particular, free scoring teams do not always enjoy the success of those who can go through three hours of knockout football and give their opponents less than a handful of decent looks at goal.

Arsenal got themselves into pole position in the Premier League and the Champions League knockout rounds by swashing buckles and blitzing opponents. They may yet do so again to anyone who is brave enough to take them on head to head. It is, however, altogether more powerful for Arteta to know that his side can still emerge victorious when they are dragged down back to earth after the heavenly reaches they have found.





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