That would probably be enough to sum up last night’s journey but I’ll sadly have to relive it in more detail than that…
There was a period last night when I was already resigned to the idea that Arsenal were crashing out in the same vein of self-destruction as they did at this stage last year. The fact that they didn’t is only thanks to a select few and ultimately, the win has ended up feeling strangely hollow. It’s a shame because I don’t think it should – having a last-gasp European knockout winner should be the stuff of dreams but when the outcome should have already been signed, sealed and delivered, the most I can come up with is relief.
Thankfully, we can once again count our lucky stars that Saka is en route to the very top and showing no signs of letting up. He wasn’t the only one to play a part in salvaging the tie but he continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Throughout the early stages, the only thing that kept springing to mind was how often Arsenal were winning the ball back high up the pitch, and yet never seeming to inspire any real interest to actually capitalise on the advantage. Instead, it was far more reminiscent of our performance against Man City, one of fear and hesitation.
That could perhaps be forgiven early on, because they weren’t to know how Benfica would perform on the day but I think it’s a mindset that will need to change if they want to have a deep run in the competition. They even did the hard part, which was to extend the lead and put the onus on Benfica to really do something. Granted, it didn’t change much because the win-conditions hadn’t changed for them but I still didn’t expect to see Arsenal hanging on by a knife’s edge. That’s about the size of it though; for whatever reason, this manager and group of players cannot seem to escape a near-constant state of brinksmanship which means life as an Arsenal fan is at the very least… never dull.
The goal itself was brilliant; and was another thing I didn’t know Saka had in his locker. So perfect was the weight of pass that Aubameyang had no need for a second touch and it’s another thing for defenders to worry about when it comes to Saka. I thought his early exchanges with Ødegaard were promising, with lots of little neat and tidy back-and-forths that eventually did their job in engineering space for Saka and he’s the one player out there that always seems hell-bent on exploiting it, even frustratedly pulling up at one point after Smith Rowe missed a run. It was also Ødegaard’s best performance in an Arsenal shirt so far in my book, and players are beginning to take advantage of what he’s capable of.
After last week’s shortcomings, there was also no mistake this time with Aubameyang’s finishing and that was his tune throughout. He could hardly miss the decisive third and his disallowed goal after the offside was another tidy finish. In the same way that it’s nice for fans to have variety in the types of goals scored, a striker of Aubameyang’s calibre thrives when there’s variety in the type of chances coming his way because it makes life difficult for defenders. After a slow start to this season’s tally, he’s beginning to rack them up when we need them most and that’s good news.
There was more good news in two key individuals coming back into the fray, in Partey and Tierney. Partey was his usual quality self, but after a fairly torrid time against City and some real rustiness in the first leg, there was a sizeable bee under Tierney’s bonnet that reared it’s head on a few occasions, usually in the form of death stares and him politely asking Benfica players to get back to their feet. Without his timely and pent-up intervention, it was otherwise slim pickings during Benfica’s brightest period across the two legs and the ease at which they were suddenly dictating play was worrying. You can also call it a Willian assist, which feels like an anachronism at this point but in fairness to him, Arteta’s justification after the game didn’t leave me scratching my head as it otherwise frequently has done this season:
‘It was a really tight two lines, 4-4-1-1, or 5-3-2 at times, they were a really, really low block, not much space to run apart from when they set the line around the 18-yard box. You need people to unlock that, with special qualities in tight spaces to create movement and I think Willi was really helpful tonight. He gave us much more composure in moments, produced some creativity, produced the goal for Kieran and we need everybody on board.’
As much as it frustrated me at the time to see Willian’s face again, hearing Arteta explain the situation from the sane confines of a post-victory press conference is easier to digest, and the neat, tidy and unimaginative stuff that Willian’s become known for was actually what we needed on this occasion. A case could probably be made for bringing on either Martinelli or Pépé much earlier to target the high line but that’s another discussion and given the result, the substitution paid off. It’s still a stretch to credit Willian for that assist because Tierney had still had plenty of work to do still when he got the ball, but as the man himself said after the game, “I wouldn’t care who scored, I just wanted to get the goals as quick as we can”.
Ceballos was quite clearly the villain of the evening, which is a shame because he’s shown something different lately. The timing and position of the free kick was unfortunate because Benfica had offered nothing besides that in the first half. Sometimes though, you have to hold your hands up and say “fair enough” because the way in which it was dispatched was sublime. He was also having a good game up until that point, winning the ball back often and showing good energy but what transpired made his earlier efforts a distant memory.
That transgression really was the stuff of nightmares. I don’t know what he expected to happen or whether someone was in his ear giving bad advice but a nod-back to the keeper – from the halfway line – was a moment of madness. For Benfica’s goal tally to be comprised of a penalty, a free kick and that was about as typical as it gets.
Time and again, one way or another, they continue to be the architects of their own downfall and there’s only so many times you can get away with that in the knockout stages. Needless red cards, penalties and other individual errors have already quashed our domestic season and those kinds of mistakes clearly still haven’t been rooted out. It’s a difficult problem to address without changes to personnel so we’re not only stuck with it for the time being, but there’s also no single cause. More often than not, it’s uncertainty which is the same reason players resort to metronome passing maps and unambitious, unconvincing passages of play. The damage is even more apparent defensively because uncertainty is an attacker’s dream and there are many better teams than Benfica left in the competition that will be keen to exploit that.
We’ve at least been given a draw which is familiar. Not only going back to the same stadium and going through the same motions in two weeks time, but this time facing an opposition which many will be keen to set the record straight against. Being “wronged” last year, in the sense that they bowed out against a team that they probably should have beaten, will hopefully give the right kind of impetus to get the job done in a calm and enjoyable manner but I’ll believe that when I see it.