Here’s how Arsenal can find their ‘purpose’ after harrowing Porto defeat

After visibly celebrating a block he thought had secured a draw, Mikel Arteta was in a notably different mood after a late 1-0 defeat. He seemed quite angry in the Dragao press room. Whether that was with his team or the referee was hard to say, since he had critical words about both.

One line still stood out in a curt press conference.

“We really dominated the game but we lacked purpose.”

His great predecessor used to have another phrase for this, as Arsene Wenger would talk about “sterile domination”. There was a little more going on here, though, which was why so little happened on the pitch. Arsenal just never hurt Porto or even looked like hurting Porto.

It was more than “purpose”. It was focus, or maybe an urgency. It was also the first big match in a long time when Arsenal were expected to win – and they didn’t.

They’ve had big wins this season, not least against Manchester City and Liverpool, but part of the significance of those was that they were unexpected. There was still a sense of a team getting ahead of themselves. This wasn’t that.

Arsenal’s first-leg defeat means they must come from behind at the Emirates Stadium in order to progress (Bradley Collyer/PA Wire)
Arsenal’s first-leg defeat means they must come from behind at the Emirates Stadium in order to progress (Bradley Collyer/PA Wire)

Although Arteta might well say this young team have little experience in the competition, their very status as a Premier League challenger ensures they are up there as one of the better teams in the Champions League. That’s especially the case against the third-best side in Portugal, who are currently going through a civil war.

And, sure, you can just lose such games, as Arsenal have similarly done in the Premier League.

It is that very sense of occasion and context, though, that warranted more. This may have been a match against a poorer Porto but it was still a grand return to the Champions League knockouts.

It is where Arsenal should have asserted themselves. It is where they should have lived up to the expectation. They didn’t do that.

“You need to have much more aggression,” Arteta complained afterwards. “You need to break lines, to play forward and generate much more threat on that back line.”

This is where there may be something else to the lack of “purpose”. It may also be where there is a warning to Arteta and a signal to opposition teams. Arsenal were coming off the back of a run during which they’d scored 21 goals in five games. They were the great entertainers again, a thrilling side. That was predicated, however, on always scoring the first goal. It forced opposition sides out and allowed Arsenal to cut them open. There was none of that with Porto.

Arteta was left frustrated by a sub-par Arsenal performance (PA Wire)
Arteta was left frustrated by a sub-par Arsenal performance (PA Wire)

They did the classic of going for it in the first 10 minutes and the last five while locking everything down in between, to a level even Arteta has rarely experienced. Those at the stadium called it a classic Sergio Conceicao performance – Porto’s manager having a reputation for such a set-up – at least until stoppage time. Conceicao ensured his side just relentlessly and methodically frustrated Arsenal, which made the match unwatchable for long periods.

“Credit to them. They defended well,” Arteta said. “But it’s true, when we got in certain areas we didn’t finish the action or put in the final ball or the right cross. Even from set-pieces, as well, every time we touched somebody it seemed to be a foul before we even kicked the ball. But we will learn and do better.

“Yeah, we’re used to playing against these kinds of deep blocks. In the first half, especially, we lacked certain things. We will learn from it and do better in the second game.”

They may need to score early, or at least first, and Arsenal do not need this to become a discernible trend, while there is of course also the greater question of whether a lack of experience got to them. For all that the economics dictate virtually everything that happens on a pitch now, human elements still matter.

Conceicao has been in a lot of big Champions League games with Porto, most notably knocking out a Juventus team that featured Cristiano Ronaldo. Arsenal have not and a young side are on a learning process together.

Sergio Conceicao set his side up to frustrate Arsenal (AFP/Getty)
Sergio Conceicao set his side up to frustrate Arsenal (AFP/Getty)

It made so much of this match look like one of those “tactical” European ties from the 1990s and into the 2000s when caution governed everything. That also saw an old-fashioned question return – were Arsenal “naive”?

“You get punished in the Champions League,” Arteta said, in another line with echoes of old. “If you cannot win it, you don’t lose it. It’s only the last kick [that Porto scored from] so, if in 94 minutes we haven’t had any naivety other than that one, I think it’s a bit cruel to judge it. But it’s true, it has had a big impact on the result. A lot of other things we did for the first time here were very good.”

But not quite good enough. It was still a brilliant Wenderson Galeno shot out of nothing to win it and Arsenal still have to produce something at the Emirates. That’s where it comes back to purpose.

Arteta has restored Arsenal to a serious outfit again. You can now be guaranteed they will be there or thereabouts. The difference between those two, however, is the substance to do it when it’s expected; when there’s that onus on you. That’s the next step. There’s no time like a Champions League second leg to start. They certainly have a purpose now.