Mikel Arteta rues Arsenal performance that 'lacked purpose' following Champions League loss to FC Porto
Mikel Arteta head coach of Arsenal FC reacts during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 round of 16 first leg match between FC Porto and Arsenal FC at Estadio do Dragao on February 21, 2024 in Porto, Portugal. (Photo by Diego Souto/Getty Images)v

Arsenal have lost their opening leg of the Champions League last 16 in Portugal, falling to a late winner against FC Porto. The Gunners have not played in a Champions League knockout tie since 2017 and looked to start a bid to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010.

Traveling to a very experienced UCL team in Porto, many fans expected an intense and fiery occasion but the game was anything but. Referee Serdar Gozubuyuk appeared to make it his goal to award as many free-kicks as possible, blowing his whistle whenever a Porto player hit the floor.  An incredible 36 free-kicks were awarded, the most of any UCL game this season.

The hilarity of the referee’s decisions perhaps was best summed up when Arsenal defender Jakub Kiwior was adjudged to have fouled a Porto defender from an Arsenal corner, despite the Porto player falling backward into the Pole from little contact, if any.

This was a game that was never really allowed to start but was won by possibly the only piece of footballing quality when Galeno curled past David Raya from 25 yards in the dying moments.

  • "If you cannot win it, you don’t lose it"

Arsenal, despite their grievances with the refereeing, will be disappointed they couldn’t impose themselves on the game as they have done in the Premier League in recent weeks. The loss leaves Arsenal needing to win by two goals when Porto visit the Emirates Stadium in March to progress, or risk facing extra time and penalties.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was questioned on if he had been surprised by his team’s performance in the Spaniard’s post-match presser.

“No, obviously we’re very disappointed by the way we gave the game away at the end, and not managing that situation well enough, and you get punished in the Champions League - if you cannot win it, you don’t lose it.” Admitted Arteta.

A 0-0 draw would’ve set Arsenal up well to comfortably win the return leg, but the young Arsenal team showed some inexperience in the final stages. When Gabriel Martinelli picked up the ball outside of the box, he could’ve carried forward or cleared the ball with little pressure. However, the Brazilian elected to attempt an unrealistic pass to Bukayo Saka and gave away the ball, which lead to Galeno’s goal.

For many of Arsenal’s players, this is a first UCL campaign. It is understandable for some inexperience to become clear in key moments and this is likely something that will only be resolved as they gain exposure in the competition.

Arteta continued, speaking about the game. “We really dominated the game, but we lacked purpose, especially in the first half to have much more aggression, to break lines, to play forward, to generate much more threat in their backline.”

  • "We’ll learn from it"

Arteta is not wrong when he speaks of his players lacking purpose. Arsenal registered zero shots on target for the first time in two years under the Spaniard, which is especially surprising given their recent goal-scoring form.

“In the second half, there were much better things, and we generated a lot of situations without really creating much from it, but we’ll learn from it. Now it’s clear, it’s half time. If you want to be in the quarter finals, you have to beat your opponent, that’s clear, and that will be the purpose and the plan with all our supporters together to do it. ”

Arsenal will be confident they can claw back the tie in the second leg, with the Emirates Stadium home crowd sure to be in the mood to welcome back the UCL knockouts. With a one-goal deficit to overcome, the Gunners will have to be careful but the removal of the away goals rule, which has plagued Arsenal in former European knockout ties, will be some encouragement.

Remarkably, Arsenal are yet to win a European knockout game at the Emirates Stadium under Arteta, with five previous attempts resulting in three draws and two losses. However, for his first in the UCL, there has never been a better time to change that.

For Arsenal now, attentions turn back to the Premier League as they face Newcastle at the Emirates on Saturday.