Arsenal and the Mikel Arteta project gain belief from penalty shootout progress – The Athletic

By Amy Lawrence5h ago

Sometimes a team has to slay their own demons as well as defeat the worst an opponent can throw at them. The weight of history, of messed up European nights, provided an ominous backdrop as Arsenal’s players linked arms around the halfway line and Martin Odegaard was the first to take on the long walk towards the North Bank.

But this is a different Arsenal, a courageous Arsenal, a driven Arsenal, an Arsenal that is determined not to be dragged down by a past that isn’t theirs. This is a group that has big hearts, big soul, and is showing a greater capacity to handle big nerves.

It was ‘cojones’ time, to borrow a term from Mikel Arteta’s homeland. At the end of an absolute slog of a tie against Porto that left both sets of players physically and emotionally spent, carrying the psychological load of a long exile from the latter stages of the Champions League, Arsenal stared a penalty shootout in the eyeballs and showed no fear. Utter focus. Complete belief. Technical accomplishment. One by one, the players demonstrated something Arteta described as “how much they want it, how much they try and how much they are able to sacrifice anything to win”.

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He went on, warming to the theme of the significance of such a step. “For seven years, we haven’t been in this competition and for 14 years, we haven’t got this far. That tells you the difficulty of it. We want more and we’re going to go for it.”

This was a result that reverberated beyond just the Emirates Stadium on the night. Ripping the monkey off the back in terms of European knockouts is a significant part of a broader sense of development and ambition. These are the places they want to be, testing themselves against fiercely tough opposition at the business end in the Premier League and Champions League.

Arteta celebrates with his staff (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

In remodelling his team last summer, Arteta placed enormous faith and considerable sums in the players handpicked to come in and add polish across the squad. Except for Jurrien Timber, who is getting closer to fitness and cannot wait to play, the other three have become vital to this season’s progression.

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It wasn’t always so.

While Declan Rice made his mark quickly, the adjustment has been more complex for Kai Havertz and David Raya. All three were protagonists in the penalty shootout — Rice and Havertz took their shots with aplomb — but for Raya in particular, this was a charged turning point. He has been quietly efficient in recent weeks but needed a showstopping moment for the slow burn of a relationship with Arsenal’s supporters to flower. They remain fond of the deposed goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and the sporting values that shone through as Ramsdale sprinted across the turf to embrace Raya were heartfelt.

Raya sprang to get a hand to three penalties on the night and the decisive one was a moment of pure release. First for him, then it rippled out to uplift his team-mates, the staff, the overjoyed supporters, and the club as a whole.

Arsenal are keeping their momentum intact. It has not been an easy week, putting in immense effort to overcome tough assignments against Brentford and then an impressively uncompromising Porto. Arsenal may meet more talented teams in this competition, but they may not come across any who are so streetwise, so tactically geared to be organised and obstinate.

Yet Arsenal found a way. Clear chances were limited but they managed to find light in the haze of the battle. An impressive move cancelled out the frustrating goal they had given away late on in the first leg. The precision of Odegaard’s pass was matched by the clinical edge of Leandro Trossard’s finish as he guided the ball into the far corner. Both were fleet of foot and sharp of mind — and needed to be with Porto blocking almost everything.

Odegaard might have given Arsenal the lead with a dinked finish, but Havertz was penalised in the build-up for a soft foul on Pepe. Who knows whether there would be a different feel about the place this morning if that had stood? A team can only learn from their experiences and the test of plugging away through extra time. Conquering penalties brings its own value to the squad, too. The difference for Raya is unequivocal.

It was also proof that preparation and hard work behind the scenes can make a tangible difference. Arsenal were particularly detailed in their penalty practice sessions, making it as realistic as possible to the nuances of actual competition.

Raya was Arsenal’s hero against Porto (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

“At the training ground, a few of them missed yesterday,” Arteta said, smiling. “Not today. We prepared everything, the extra-time scenario, the changes, how the players have to drink and eat and all that. But in the end, you have to do it in the game. To replicate the scenario is difficult. Total credit for the boys, stepping in with that maturity and that confidence and delivering the way they did.”

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All in all, Arsenal enjoyed the climax of an emotional few days. Jorginho blew kisses, Gabriel twirled his shirt around his head like a triumphant gladiator, Jakub Kiwior, outstanding on the night, fell into the arms of one of the coaches with a quietly contended and exhausted smile. Arsenal were knackered and happy.

They now have a short recovery period, then some time off before the international break, before they return to face the monumental challenge of Manchester City away.

Keep it coming. That is exactly how Arteta and his evolving team want it.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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Since football fandom kicked in in the 1970s, the path to football writing started as a teenager scribbling for a fanzine. After many years with the Guardian and the Observer, covering the game from grassroots to World Cup finals, Amy Lawrence joined The Athletic in 2019.

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