Arsenal 3- 2 Benfica: post-game thoughts.
Arsenal made it hard for themselves but I am still delighted that the team made it to the next round in the Europa League. Benfica gave us a lesson in efficiency. We were easily the better team over both legs but still got through by the skin of our teeth. The difference between the two teams, besides quality of players, is the way chances are taken when they present themselves. Benfica took theirs perfectly and we did not, especially in the first leg in Rome. Furthermore, we had to work hard to create chances against a well-drilled Portuguese team – some may say that’s a tautology – and they were simply presented with three gifts to which they replied with a ‘muito obrigado’: a penalty in the first leg, and an ‘ideal free kick’ and a ‘walk the ball into the net after a headed pass by us’ in the second leg. This naivety almost cost us.
We have to learn from this as we will not get away with it again in the next leg, or the leg after that.
The balance in midfield remains the big issue, as it has been for donkeys years. Yes Ceballos can pick a beauty of a pass and is able to drive the ball forward well, but he has no defensive nous. He may produce a good block or interception occasionally but being a defensive midfielder is much more than that. Furthermore, Xhaka does not like playing with Ceballos as they don’t compliment each other at all. My big question to Mikel would be, why are you playing Ceballos ahead of Elneny when you have three attacking, creative midfielders in front of Xhaka and Ceballos already? Why not play Elneny in the absence of Partey. Luckily, the latter was fit enough to come on for the last half hour and that was a big factor for turning things round.
Partey has presence and occupies a space, a big space. it is his and he will not be passed. This is the difference between a proper deeper laying midfielder and a makeshift one. As soon as Thomas came on we had a chance to change things round again. Willian entered the field at the same time and what this meant was that Tierney was no longer alone in cracking the left side and his passes and crosses into the box would be more likely to lead to an end-product.
In practical terms the game turned again when Tierney scored that unbelievably calm and collected second goal. It was game on and his battle cry would have made Robert the Bruce proud. King Kieran showed once again that no matter how organised and disciplined the instructions of the manager are – and I rate Mikel very highly for this – there comes a time when the passion needs to kick in: the ‘We are The Arsenal and We Will Be Victorious No Matter Fecking What!’. Kieran is the embodiment this spirit.
Two more players made the difference last night. We all know who they are. Auba finished very well this time round and Saka just made it all happen. Two assists – eight in the EL already this season – of the highest quality pulled us over the line. The thing with Saka is that, just like Fabregas when he started to strut his stuff as a teenager, he is soooo efficient and purposeful in all that he does. There is hardly any frivolity in his play and demeanor: defenders cannot psyche him out or ruffle him physically; he just responds with a quality run past them or a peach of a cross in the box as soon as he can do so again. Bukayo is just bang on the money and that is why he has it all to become one of the greatest Gunners ever.
My final comment on the match is regarding the inclusion of both ESR and Odegaard in the starting-11. Do we really need both of them to start? I can see that they make us unpredictable in our attacking play when they are both on the pitch and I am willing to give it more time. Yet with Saka also on the team and Arteta also playing Ceballos a bit deeper and who of course can and will pick a key pass when possible, are we not better served with another attacker in the three behind the CF? And by playing both of ESR and Odegaard are we actually diluting their skills and influence a bit? One to keep an eye on, I reckon.
In a few minutes we will know who we are going to get in the next round. Whoever it is, Arteta needs to sit down with the boys and make sure some important lessons are taught before we take them on.