For a game that looked there for the taking, I’m still slightly amazed that Arsenal came away with only a single goal to their name. That’s been a familiar theme in recent weeks for one reason or another, but Benfica were set up to negate and frustrate; happy for Arsenal to have plenty of the ball and even risk a high line with ageing defenders against a front line with pace.
You’d be easily fooled into thinking it was a close game if you only saw the match stats. The golden opportunities that fell to Aubameyang would have put the game to bed, and nothing Benfica produced came close. You can’t really account for that in your preparations – sometimes your striker just has an off day – but for it to come so soon after his weekend flurry was less than ideal. The chances were there and were well-crafted, and the hope is simply that there’ll be more of the same when we need it most in the second leg.
Arteta’s intentions for this competition were clear as day; that he’s not taking any chances because the team he fielded was arguably his strongest available. It’s for that reason that he’ll be especially frustrated to have put so much on the line with some crunching Premier League ties loitering either side of our games against Benfica. I fully expect a loss against Man City because they’re simply a cut above the rest right now, but becoming competitive against sides of their calibre is still a useful exercise for Arteta between now and the end of the season. Going into the match drained will really hamper our chances of making it useful and I wouldn’t be surprised if City play like it’s a training exercise but maybe this is the time their crazy run comes to an end. At any rate, anything that isn’t a loss would be a great result and the performance against Benfica doesn’t leave me with any real concerns. Obviously that’ll go out the window and we’ll be despondent over the missed chances if we somehow lose next week but for now, all is calm.
While it’s always disappointing to concede a penalty, it’s nice to not have to bemoan some poor decision or VAR nonsense and thought the Turkish officials put the Premier League’s to shame. It’s a soft penalty in the grand scheme of things but they’re inevitable; the idea of footballers only ever jumping or blocking with their arms by their side like robots is ridiculous but that’s the state of the game. Smith Rowe is clearly smart enough to remember that next time and I was much more reassured by the overall defensive display than our profound ability to concede penalties anyway.
There were two standout performers of the night in Ceballos and Ødegaard, who both found plenty of success with line-splitting passes through and over Benfica’s high line. Aubameyang will be most rueful having squandered Ceballos’ brilliant through-ball to Bellerín but I’m still convinced there’s more where that came from in the second leg. The two loanees almost combined for a walked-in goal that was reminiscent of peak “Wengerball” and judging by Ødegaard’s hands-on-head disappointment, he knew it too. After his signing was announced, he revealed that Fàbregas was “one of [his] idols” and part of me secretly hopes that this kind of affinity for past players and the club would help get a permanent deal over the line. It’s early days but the speed at which he’s slotted into the team, with so little playing time under his belt at Real this season only bodes well for the remainder of his loan and beyond. When he plays like he did last night, the same can also be said for Ceballos but with 63 games notched up for Arsenal already, he remains less convincing until he can do that with some regularity.
The game seemed to ebb with each subsequent substitution and as is so often the case with two-legged knockout ties, it transitioned into simply protecting what we had. That’s not to say we simply stopped trying but Benfica were defending with numbers and had already threatened on the break, so it was wise to not over-commit in search of a second. So too did Saka’s influence ebb, with Smith Rowe and Aubameyang’s simultaneous substitution, he became easier to isolate and control, looking jaded towards the end. Still, getting another important goal when you have an off-day is quite alright in my book and his scuffed effort wide was equally as uncharacteristic as Aubameyang’s. Benfica may have rode their luck in the first leg but for both players to have a similar showing in the second is hard to imagine, so I’m setting myself up for heartbreak by trusting the gods of probability.
On the topic of substitutions, I thought Pépé and Martinelli’s arrival came too late in the day to make an impact – and not for the first time under Arteta. Benfica were already more than happy sitting on their haunches as the game state had already eclipsed the times of Arsenal getting in behind, and the pair found little to no joy trying to run at their back line. The final two changes made Arteta’s stance abundantly clear because those two are not match-winners, and in some ways, he might as well have not bothered at all
All to play for.