Friday, April 19, 2024

Mikel Arteta had already drawn up the blueprint for Arsenal’s penalty shootout excellence in win over Porto

LONDON — They might call it a lottery but when Arsenal players strode towards the North Bank they had the look of men who knew they had the winning ticket in their back pocket. No one could have blamed them if 14 years without a Champions League quarterfinal weighed heavily on jerseys sodden with sweat and a north London downpour.

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Not in the slightest. In swift succession, Martin Odegaard, Kai Havertz, Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice struck with purpose and precision. They gave David Raya a chance. He sprung towards it with arms stretched aloft. The Emirates Stadium took time to come to terms with the sidelining of their beloved Aaron Ramsdale; even if they knew that Raya was the superior goalkeeper, it is hard to let go of a player so emblematic of the era when they fell head over heels with the club again. Purposeful saves from Galeno and the excellent Wendell were enough to propel Raya even deeper into this stadium’s affection.

For so much of the long drift from Leandro Trossard’s equalizer across the tie, it had felt like Mikel Arteta had been guilty of keeping one eye on the shootout, refusing to throw too many forwards on in pursuit of victory and open up gaps for Porto to burst into on the break. Perhaps he had a point. Arsenal have long been extremely good at taking penalties. 

In Premier League and European football, they have taken 29 spot kicks since the start of the 2020-21 season, Arteta’s first in the job. They have scored 25 of them, their expected goal value 22.9. When it comes to shootouts, the return is even more impressive. Thirteen taken, 12 converted. All that without one ace spot-kick taker. More than a great many of their counterparts, Arsenal share the 0.79 xG wealth.

Their last 14 in-game spot kicks have had eight different takers and 13 goals. Three of those who stepped up to drill home the sort of penalties that players generally don’t take if it’s their first attempt. Odegaard started the scoring run with a purposeful effort high into the top right corner. Havertz’s spot kick was yet further proof of Jorginho’s influence on the German, a stutter followed by a finish smart enough to beat Diogo Costa even though he didn’t bite. Saka and penalty shootouts brings all sorts of fears for Arsenal supporters but evidently no longer for the man himself as he whacked his effort in.

Rice was the only one who has not taken a penalty for Arsenal but he did take three for West Ham. He belied his pretty ordinary track record from 12 yards but of course he did. He’s Declan Rice. He delivers when Arsenal need him. The rest of the takers would inevitably have found that task easier given the experience they had had.

“It’s probably great experience,” Arteta told CBS Sports. “It’s much more real than what we’ve done in the last two days [when Arsenal have been working on penalties at the training ground] just in case they have to go through that tonight.

“They looked really composed, the boys. The way they took their penalties was superb and David contributed in his keeping as well.”

He had done so long before the shootout. On a night where Porto determined themselves to needle Arsenal wherever and whenever possible, Raya radiated calm that contrasted harshly with the skittish display of Ramsdale on Saturday night. The Spaniard was authoritative under the high ball and set the pace with which his teammates played, striking the perfect balance between not getting carried away and pushing a tempo that the opposition wanted to slow to a snail’s pace.

The Raya-Ramsdale debate was answered some time ago when the Brentford loanee shook off some early nerves at his new club. Tuesday night was the best sign yet that Arsenal’s No. 1 might at least find himself in a conversation with the best goalkeepers in the sport. When called upon in the match proper he delivered impressive saves.

Arteta had always seen something like this coming. 

“I was convinced that [this performance] was going to be the case. You see him those first few days here, what he had to go through and how he did it with that composure. You look at his body language and the decisions that he takes, he doesn’t get very affected. That’s a key quality for that position,” Arteta said. 

Had more of his players shown Raya’s composure in normal time the game might have been won earlier although far more credit should go to Porto for an outstanding defensive display. Bukayo Saka struggled like he rarely has in 2024, perhaps that was down to big-stage nerves but it might just have been the excellence of Wendell. On another night, Mehdi Taremi’s effort might have bent a bit more, much as Arsenal might have not seen a goal ruled out when Clement Turpin concluded that Havertz had grappled with Pepe before the ball broke to Odegaard. 

This was a game that was always going to be decided by razor-sharp margins and on this occasion Arsenal had positioned themselves to gain from them, even if the pre-match training sessions had brought with them a few nervy moments and missed penalties.

“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 really difficult. Total credit for the boys, stepping in with that maturity and that confidence and delivering the way they did,” Arteta said. 

That preparation got its rewards on this night. For the first time in 14 years, Arsenal are back in the Champions League quarterfinals. Whoever they face next would be well advised to get the tie concluded before penalties roll around.

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