Mikel Arteta admits Champions League is firing Arsenal’s dreams
Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to create a mythology around European nights at the Emirates and admits the pain of watching Champions League football from afar has served as motivation for him and his players.
Arsenal face Sporting on Thursday evening in the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie, which is delicately poised after the sides drew 2-2 in Lisbon last week. The Premier League leaders have generated a fearsome atmosphere for domestic home games and, with Arteta’s team chasing a first continental title since 1994, he is keen to build the kind of mystique from which Liverpool have long benefited against foreign opposition at Anfield.
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“I think we have to build that back,” he said. “Obviously it’s been a long time since we had one of those special nights. [The fans] have to enjoy coming to European games and the team has to give them the right reasons to be part of that, and hopefully [against Sporting] we can start a nice journey.”
Heady European occasions have not been completely alien since the Emirates opened in 2006: the ground has hosted runs to the Champions League semi-finals in 2008-09 and the Europa League last four in 2018-19. But Arsenal have not played in the former for six years and, while they seem sure to return next season, Arteta has tried to use the angst involved in missing out as a driving force.
“Motivation,” he said when asked how it felt to watch Arsenal’s rivals compete at the top table. “It makes you feel that desire to get back with the top clubs in Europe and be challenging them, and see how good we are in relation to them. But we have a competition now that is not very far from the Champions League, with the teams that are left, and we experienced that last week.”
Sporting played in this season’s Champions League group stage and showed quality in a first leg that saw Arsenal put in a sloppy performance by recent standards. Arteta accepts an improvement is required and may not rotate dramatically. Gabriel Jesus can expect further involvement, probably from the bench, after returning from injury at Fulham on Sunday. His recovery is well timed given Eddie Nketiah remains in a protective boot after injuring an ankle and will, according to Arteta, require a few weeks further to get over “a nasty injury”.
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Emile Smith Rowe, who is yet to start a game this season due to his own fitness issues, is likely to be among the substitutes once again. Internally Arteta prefers to call the men on his bench “impacters”, with a nod to the kind of starring role played by Reiss Nelson in the win over Bournemouth. Keeping players involved will be vital now that his attacking ranks, in particular, are burgeoning and he elaborated on his reasons for adopting the term.
“It’s something that we wanted to change and I discussed it with a few people,” he said. “We wanted to find something that is particular for us. I think it was the best way to express how we feel about them and how they have to feel towards the team, especially on match day.”
Eddie Jones, the former England rugby head coach, was famed for his deployment of “finishers” and Arteta explained some of the advice he had sought on the topic came from people in other sports, although he did not elaborate. Arsenal’s players were also consulted. “[The role is] replacing somebody and making the team better, or doing things differently that are related to winning football matches,” he said. “At the end your mentality should be only that, to impact the game to win it. That’s it, nothing else.
“It’s about managing the group and how the team and the individual feels about their role, and [to] make sure that that is clear and that they are still motivated with us to get the best out of them.”