When Sporting CP rocked up to the Emirates Stadium in November 2018, Arsenal were still bathing in the warm glow of Unai Emery’s honeymoon period.
Six months after Arsene Wenger bid “bye, bye” following 22 years at the helm of the Gunners, his replacement had embarked upon an unbeaten streak which was extended to 15 matches with a 0-0 draw against their Europa League group-stage opponents.
Four-and-a-half years later, Arsenal are in even loftier spirits as they meet Sporting in Europe’s second-tier cup competition while in the midst of a Premier League title tilt.
Mikel Arteta’s favourite starting lineup has practically been tattooed onto the team sheet this season but the XI that last faced Sporting is rather more eclectic.
The then-36-year-old began the season as Emery’s number one but was dethroned by Berd Leno after a hamstring injury in October. Incidentally, amid this chopping and changing of keepers, Emery didn’t turn to Emi Martinez – who is now his number one at Aston Villa.
Cech retired at the end of the season, becoming Chelsea’s technical director a matter of weeks after losing the 2019 Europa League final to the Blues in his final professional football match. In October that year, Cech made his debut as an ice hockey goaltender for Guildford Phoenix. Cech has since left Chelsea but occasionally straps on his skates for Chelmsford Chieftains.
The Swiss Express had begun to creak by the time he arrived at Arsenal as a 34-year-old in 2018. Lichtsteiner only stayed in London for a season and returned to Switzerland after retiring from playing in 2020.
The serial winner at Juventus is currently the Under-15s coach at FC Basel, a club he never played for but did once lose 8-1 to during his early days at Grasshopper.
The veteran Greek centre-back is still playing continental football, turning out for a 0-0 in this season’s Europa League group stages against Qarabag.
Admittedly, Sokratis’ Olympiacos side didn’t win a single game in the competition but the 34-year-old offers some leadership from the back at a club which has already had three permanent managers this season.
One of just two players in that Arsenal XI that is still at the club, Holding is four years older and wiser but has never had more hair. Strange.
After starting every game in this season’s Europa League group stage, there is every chance that Holding could be given another chance to keep a clean sheet against Sporting.
The boyhood Arsenal fan – who sometimes looked a little too similar to a spectator while on the pitch – left the club for Nottingham Forest in 2019. Jenkinson never established himself at the City Ground but has taken to life Down Under in recent years.
The one-cap England international started the A-League Grand Final in his debut season with Melbourne Victory before joining Newcastle United Jets last summer, consistently starting across the back line and even captaining the side on occasion.
Aaron Ramsey’s manager at Nice, Lucien Favre, would not have been the person to write this article over the festive period. After the World Cup, Favre admitted he’d had no contact with the Wales international and didn’t seem all too concerned. “No [I haven’t spoken to him],” he said. “I could, but… There you go. I answered…”
However, Ramsey has forced his way into Favre’s plans in 2023, avoiding injuries which plagued his time at Juventus and Rangers (and Arsenal) to start every match in Nice’s seven-game unbeaten sequence.
Only two players featured in more Arsenal games under Emery than Guendouzi. Arteta showed little of the same affection, blacklisting the prodigious but petulant youngster after he was sucked into Neal Maupay’s vortex.
Following loans with newly-monied Hertha BSC and then Marseille, Guendouzi permanently joined the French giants last summer for just €11m, affording Arsenal a meagre profit margin after spotting his talents in the French second tier. Still only 23, Guendouzi is thriving in the (partially) controlled chaos of Igor Tudor’s side.
Yet to make a Premier League appearance, the group game against Sporting was Smith Rowe’s second-ever start as a senior Arsenal player and the first game he ever played the full 90 minutes of.
Nearly half a decade later, Smith Rowe may still live at home but he is a far more established member of Arsenal’s squad – as signified by the change of squad number, jumping from 55 to ten. However, injury has limited the 22-year-old to 62 minutes across all competitions this season.
One half of arguably the least successful swap deal in Premier League history, Mkhitaryan mirrored Alexis Sanchez again by joining Inter. Roma was the initial destination Mkhitaryan sought for salvation after an underwhelming 18 months at Arsenal.
Mkhitaryan rapidly assimilated to the pace of Serie A – which is far quicker than it is often given credit for – and even managed to survive another season under Jose Mourinho, the Manchester United manager that oversaw his departure for Arsenal, before signing for the Nerazzurri last summer.
Welbeck’s game against Sporting ended after half an hour when he shattered his ankle while falling awkwardly. The England international never made another appearance for Arsenal.
The former Manchester United youth product left the Gunners for Watford on a free that summer but injury dogged his season-long spell in Hertfordshire before a more successful, but similarly stop-start, two-and-a-half years with Brighton.
Arsenal have not been a good selling club in recent years but Alex Iwobi is a rare success story for the transfer team at Colney. At the end of the season in question, Arsenal managed to convince Everton – hardly revered buyers – to part ways with £35m.
Jay-Jay Okocha’s nephew initially endured the same struggles he faced at Arsenal, perennially on the brink of realising his full potential before reinventing himself as a dynamic midfielder under Frank Lampard. Iwobi’s personal uptick in form couldn’t save Lampard from the sack and Sean Dyche has ushered the 26-year-old back out to the wing.