The Europa League is back and feeling as important as ever. Arsenal skated through their group with a perfect six wins, but the competition the Gunners were paired with may have given that sort of record a feeling of “expectation”. Arsenal rotated their lineup for the group stages as one would have expected, so maybe an undefeated stage is still impressive, but the competition heats up and Arteta will likely look to his complete side for this one.
No one needs reminding of last year’s early bow out against Olympiacos, especially not Arteta or Aubameyang, but Mikel will hope his side remembers the losing feeling and learn from it.
This year’s first leg is against Benfica from Portugal’s Primiera Liga, a team that Arsenal have only faced once in European competition before, one of the joys of European competitions like the Europa League and Champions League. Facing unfamiliar foes and testing your team against Europe’s better sides. This year’s first leg comes with an added twist for both teams.
Neither leg will be played at the usual home stadium for either team. Both legs will take place at neutral venues, yet the away goal tie-breaker will still be in effect. The first leg will be in Rome, ‘away’ for the Gunners, and the second leg in Greece, ‘home’ for Arsenal.
“Well, it’s very unusual but we have to try to maintain the integrity of the competition as much as we can” said Arteta in his press conference. “The only way to do that at the moment is to play at different venues, but at least it’s played over two legs with away goals always present.”
This away goal presence will mean that Arsenal have to stay diligent and hungry, even outside of their comfort zone. Both sides will dread their team playing poorly in an unfamiliar ground and being knocked out on the technicality.
For Arsenal, being knocked out of the Europa League would likely see their season become unsalvageable. Their Premier League season sits in a precarious position in which the points separating them from fourth place look manageable while the number of teams between them looks extremely daunting. Does it make the Europa League Arsenal’s best shot at a return to the Champions League?
“It’s one of the ways. There’s still a lot of games to play in the Premier League too but obviously, we are very excited with this competition. We’ve been on a really strong run this season in the Europa League and tomorrow we have a good opportunity to make another step [forward].”
The response of a coach unwilling to accept his team’s domestic campaign is becoming a formality and competition for learning from. Not to spring a ‘gotcha’ moment on Arteta, but in a later response, Arteta does say, “the best way to get back to that is by winning this competition.”Make of that what you will.
To lift the trophy, Arsenal will have to make a serious late season run, one that would compete with last season’s FA Cup run in a list of impressive feats. That begins by getting a result against Benfica in Rome. in the midst of a difficult run of fixtures. With Leeds last weekend, Manchester City this weekend, a second leg against Benfica, followed by a match with Leicester — Arteta is going to have to be smart about his team selections.
Before we look at a predicted lineup, let’s look at some team news.
Arsenal didn’t release any official team news article at this point, but considering there were only two names on the list in advance of Leeds, and there hasn’t be any news of new inclusions, we can narrow things down.
In this press conference, Arteta had this to say on Tierney and Partey:
“Thomas didn’t travel. He’s not there yet, he’s still training individually. Kieran has had one session with us and is part of the squad.”
Fairly matter of fact. There was some worry over Aubameyang being in trouble after he was accused of flouting lockdown rules to get a tattoo on his hand, but Arteta has confirmed that his captain has traveled with the team.
When it comes to lineup for this match, things could get interesting. With Manchester City at the weekend, Benfica next week, and another quick turnaround for Leicester City — the schedule is coming at the Gunners fast. With that in mind, I believe we will see a little bit of rotation from Leeds, meshed with Arteta’s historical desire to play strong teams.
Additionally, I believe that Arteta already had his teams in mind for Leeds, Benfica, and Manchester City, and that almost regardless of performances he would stick with them.
With that in mind, Leno to remain in net, Tierney to be welcomed back after his time away, assuming he is fit, Gabriel to retain his spot, Holding to slot back in next to him, and Soares at right back. Bellerin and Cedric will continue to battle one another for priority, but given the state of Arsenal’s season, I believe Arteta needs to stick with the hot hands. I thought Bellerin had some really good moments against Leeds, but you have to say, Cedric has played very well over the last few weeks and had earned minutes as a right back.
In the midfield, I stuck with the same three used versus Leeds. Xhaka plays just about every game so I expect that to continue, Ceballos I believe will retain his spot with Partey out, and Ødegaard to get another start. I believe we will see Emile Smith Rowe against Manchester City and therefore I have him on the bench today versus Benfica. There is a chance we see Elneny play in place of Ceballos if Arteta is really looking to feel Benfica out and be content with a draw, but with away goals a factor, in a stadium that isn’t comfortable for Benfica either, I’d like to see some attacking looks from the midfield.
Up top is where the real question marks lie. I selected Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe. This concept was built around the goal of giving Bukayo Saka a rest for this match, and involving Pepe and Lacazette after they got their rest last weekend. If you asked me about the lineup for today before Leeds, Pepe would be on the left. However, after Aubameyang has struggled this year to find a groove, which was momentarily recaptured against Leeds, I believe Arteta will look to keep that momentum rolling. With that in mind, I slid Pepe to the right and put Aubameyang on the left.
Because we haven’t seen what a complete Arsenal lineup looks like for the Europa League since the group stages, it’s also hard to assess the prioritization level of this stage in Arteta’s mind what that looks like as far as team selection goes. A desire to win it is a given, but with two legs and a tough matchup coming, does he flirt with a heavier rotation to get rest or play his best?
I believe we will see Arteta look to rotate the squad in this fashion as he sets his team up to feel out Benfica in the opening minutes of the match, before trying to up the tempo. With his intent to up the tempo but maintain player fitness, I believe that the five substitutions Arteta is given will come into play. I know that I have scrutinized Arteta’s usage of subs over the course of the season and this match will be no different — possibly moreso.
He has to get those subs right this match, and he has to look to change the game with them — assuming Arsenal haven’t put it away.
Benfica usually takes up a 4-4-2 shape, but have also played a 3-4-3 at times. From their 4-4-2 they look to try to compress the field and press, something Arsenal face quite often within the Premier League, but the Gunners will need to be ready for it. On the ball, Benfica wants to possess and progress the ball through the lines, which hopefully provides an opportunity to press Benfica right back.
All in all, if Arsenal feel out Benfica, prevent themselves from making sloppy mistakes against the press and look to dictate the play as much as possible from early stages, I expect them to come out just fine. Getting 1 away goal would be a big deal, but getting at least a draw may be bigger.
Prediction: 0-1 Arsenal