Mikel Arteta may well make a raft of changes for this evening’s Europa League first-leg clash with Sporting Lisbon but the boss is still keen to progress in the competition knowing his side have built up all-important momentum on the domestic front in recent weeks.
When the Gunners dropped out of the FA Cup in January, it sparked a run of four games without a win that threatened to derail the club’s push for a first league title since 2004.
With matches coming thick and fast, Arteta says the best way to prepare for Sunday’s London derby at Fulham is to keep things ticking over with another win in the Portuguese capital.
“Our priority is the two competitions,” said Arteta when asked in his pre-game press conference whether he’s approaching the game differently given the Gunners’ position in the league.
“Obviously we have to earn the right to continue in this competition to get as far as we want, and tomorrow we’re going to face a really difficult opponent.
“The best way to prepare for any competition is to win the previous match and having the confidence and the proper emotion to approach the next game. Tomorrow if we play well and we are able to win the game, that will better prepare us for the next game.”
Having dropped into the Europa League from the Champions League – a competition they qualified for after ending a 19-year wait for a league title – Sporting will certainly be a stern test.
Granted they sold prizes assets in the summer and are way off domestic pace-setters Benfica but Ruben Amorim’s side have won seven of their last 10 games in the Primeira Liga since the World Cup.
“I think that their strength is the idea of the manager which is very clear,” said Arteta.
“He has been very successful over the past years here at the club. Their game plan, of course, we watched many of the matches against Tottenham, against the big teams in Portugal and tomorrow it will be a very difficult game.
“It’s a very competitive team with a clear game plan and we need to be at our best.”
He’s also well aware that Amorim won’t make it easy for Arsenal to second-guess Sporting’s tactics.
“The variety, options and the change in formations that they can do, and within that shape as well, the profile of players especially the wing-backs change their behaviours,” said Arteta when asked about the host’s versatility.
“We know that, and until we have the line-ups, we will have a few question marks as we try to understand what they will do.”
Arsenal haven’t faced Sporting since the Europa League campaign of 2018/19 under Unai Emery but they do have a player in their ranks with close knowledge of tonight’s opponent.
Fabio Vieira, who grew up at rivals Porto before signing for the Gunners in the summer, scored and assisted against Sporting in a 2-2 draw in February last year.
Arteta confirmed he’s tapped up the 22-year-old for some inside information.
“For sure, that was the first thing that we did because it’s great to have the knowledge and the understanding of someone from the country, who knows the manager and has [international] teammates. It’s always very useful and he talked really highly.”
While there are some fans who’d quite happily see Arsenal wash their hands of the Europa League to focus on winning the Premier League, ex-Gunner Martin Keown makes an important point – for several players in the squad, this competition represents their only real chance of game time between now and next season.
Speaking to BT Sport he suggested that carrot of game time will be vital to maintaining a sense of togetherness.
“I don’t think you can prioritise one competition over the other,” he said.
“I think it’s really important for the unity of the squad that they progress in the Europa League because it’s giving everyone a stage to perform and contribute.
“The task for Arteta is to find a balance where he can compete in the Europa League without jeopardising their title chances.
“Winning momentum is not a tap you can just turn on and off. Arteta’s attitude will be to win every game they play in.”