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Tight margins demand sharp play: 3 takeaways from Arsenal’s first leg

Benfica stayed compact, defended well, and frustrated Arsenal for 90 minutes. Keeping the margins tight meant Arsenal needed to be sharper at the crucial junctures.

Arsenal will undoubtedly leave Rome feeling frustrated after a match in which they controlled everywhere but where it counted. A significant away goal secured, and a draw to go with it, but you wouldn’t be faulted for feeling frustrated and worried about the Gunners being sucker punched in the second leg.

Benfica came out in a compact, 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation that looked to clog the middle, keep the game tight, and bring the result down to a matter of fine margins. In many ways, it felt like a gameplan reminiscent of Arsenal’s time playing a 3-4-3 formation. Deny easy avenues through the lines, look to clog and frustrate while shielding the backline, pick and choose times to foray forward, and offer few opportunities for the opposition to get clear looks at goal.

59% possession, 7 shots (2 on goal) for Arsenal to 41% possession and 6 shots (4 on goal) for Benfica? Reminds me of the stats from Arsenal’s FA Cup win over Chelsea

Stats from Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in the 20202 FA Cup Final

As important as the 1-1 scoreline with an away goal to Arsenal’s name may feel, it’s tough to imagine that it will have Benfica feeling as though they are forced into changing up the game plan and expanding themselves for the second leg. This means that Arsenal are going to have to learn from this result and come ready to face Benfica’s tough mid block once again — this time with a lot more on the line.

When you break the match down into individual events, half-chances, and plays that could have gone either way — Arsenal should have walked with a resounding win that may have even put the tie to bed. When you look at the match as a whole with some of the languid and timid play, the technical mistakes, the mental mistakes, and the often amiss quality at the pivotal junctures, a draw may feel a bit more justified.

However you view it — justified or hard done — Arsenal will need to improve on it for the second leg.

Lineup

Arteta went with the same lineup that was used against Leeds at the weekend. Personally, I was surprised. I had thought we would see more rotation, an injection of fresh legs, and a few changes given the upcoming matches. But sticking with the lineup that just netted you four goals and a win against Leeds isn’t the most difficult mindset to rationalize.

There were plenty of people upset that Pepe didn’t get selected to start, but if the intent was to use the same, or similar, press-breaking tactics against Benfica’s mid block, while looking to press Benfica early with a similar structure, then Pepe is not a like-for-like swap with Emile Smith Rowe. It was pretty visible late in the game when Pepe did come on along with Martinelli, that there was a shift in Arsenal’s tactics to fit those two.

When Pepe plays the left wing, his success has come from positions similar to the ones Aubameyang has success occupying from the left wing. That same space is where Aubameyang shifts to in this system with Smith Rowe on the left while Emile drops central, behind the front, and partners Ødegaard between the lines. Real 4-2-2-2 vibes. The fact that Arteta changed the tactics late in the game and purposely paired Martinelli and Pepe’s subs with those changes tells you that Mikel doesn’t believe Pepe can play that role, which is probably correct.

Arsenal returned to the Leeds lineup, there was plenty to like about it, however, there was no consistent end product, unlike versus Leeds.

As for the rest of the selection, most of it fell into place naturally and made sense. A few people were looking for a return of Rob Holding, but Luiz offers a passing range that Holding doesn’t. In a match Arsenal intends to have most the possession, and Benfica’s press and mid block strategy, that passing is an important asset.

The Match

If I could sum of the match in three words: laborious, taxing, and frustrating.

Likewise, if Benfica could have described three things they wanted Arsenal to feel about the match it would be those three.

Arsenal didn’t have trouble getting themselves on the ball, but navigating through the tangle of Benfica midfielders and defenders was extremely difficult. As Arsenal beat one line of Benfica’s block, up stepped the next wave to turn Arsenal back. Arsenal struggled to find clear channels through the thicket and too often turned back to retain possession.

The Gunners’ game lacked dare, it lacked tempo for most of it, and with 10 offsides there was little to no timing. No tempo, no timing, and languid play? A recipe for a frustrating 90 minutes.

Arsenal lacked the ability to get the ball from back to front and side to side with pace. To really attack the space and look to kill. They were timid. A surprise after this same side displayed a ruthless nature just last weekend. But that’s what happens with this Arsenal side when they aren’t give some of those obvious attacking spaces. Spaces that Leeds has a tendency to concede, while Benfica locked down routinely.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t chance, there were, but as we have talked about on countless occasions this season, Arsenal didn’t have that efficiency in front of net. No chance was as clear cut as the tap-in Aubameyang put wide from 10 yards out after Saka played a square ball behind the defense and beyond the keeper. Certainly the most egregious miss, and the epitome of the Gabonese striker’s forgettable evening in front of net. After showcasing that clinical finishing against Leeds, he reverted back to the Aubameyang we have seen struggle for much of the season.

The first half lacked fluidity and danger, the second half was a continuation and lacked enough end product. To make matters worse, Arsenal made their lives extremely difficult when Emile Smith Rowe had a penalty called against him that felt extremely harsh. A cross from Benfica was smashed at him from a few yards away and it looks to make contact with his arm and chest almost simultaneously. The whole thing felt off, but VAR quickly confirmed the call.

If there was a positive to hold onto, it was the fact that Arsenal responded. Heads stayed high, they kept the course, and just two minutes later, Ceballos springs the attack with a lovely, direct long ball over the top for Saka to run onto. Saka tries to cut it back to Smith Rowe, but the ball takes an awkward ricochet and lands at Auba’s feet. A simple layoff for Ødegaard, a beautiful slotted ball wide for Cedric, and a low cross through the six-yard box finds Saka.

It could be a major away goal, and it meant that Arsenal left Rome with something other than a loss to hold onto.

Arsenal may have been done scoring, but the difficulties and wasteful play in front of net continued. Aubameyang had a few great opportunities to score; he dragged shots wide, scuffed shots, and got far to fancy trying to cut back on his right foot when in on goal.

It leaves a world of work to do in the second leg if Arsenal want to avoid being sucker punched by their Portuguese opposition. There are certainly some positive aspects to play and the way Arsenal controlled the much, but there are improvements that need to be made.

Here are three of my takeaways from match.

Play died with the fullbacks far too often

Yes, Cedric got the assist, but far too often, as Arsenal attempted to navigate themselves into open space and find ways to get through the defensive block of Benfica did the play come to screeching halt with their fullbacks. It may be too far to say that Arsenal’s attack lives and dies by their fullbacks, although Tierney is certainly a difference-maker, but yesterday, the attack died with them.

On countless occasions, Bellerin and Cedric missed opportunities to attack the space and find the entrance ball into Ødegaard’s feet to advance the ball while navigating side-to-side to change the point of the attack.

A prime visual example here from Bellerin in the middle of the field, but I found myself noticing Soares missing these exact passes in the middle third more often. Bellerin on the other hand was caught taking far too many touches in the final third, and missing his moments to pick out the right pass in and around the box.

He missed cutbacks to Saka, didn’t have the final ball in the box, he took too heavy of touches, and he was forced to turn back.

Benfica did a good job of closing down the wings and looking to set up traps there, but there were avenues through the center with Ceballos or Ødegaard that were missed far too frequently. In the end, Arsenal’s attack petered out and lost momentum.

They need to take advantage of those spaces and opportunities in the second leg to work the shift, and find the dangerous ball. That starts with improvement from the fullback play.

Ødegaard and Ceballos are a nice pair

Ceballos and Ødegaard faded in the final 15, possibly as Benfica got even more rigid and seemed content with the draw, but the pair looked really nice together for a second straight match.

Ødegaard seemed very confident at bossing the midfield around and has a knack for getting himself on the ball in a variety of spaces (mostly the right-center side). He played multiple line-splitting passes, and was one of the few players filled with flair during this dull attacking affair.

Ødegaard created two chances, he had 3 crosses, he won 6 duels, looked to carry the ball at times, he made 4 tackles, and he was a real engine in between the lines. As I mentioned above, I thought he could have been even more effective had he been given earlier service from the fullbacks when he was open.

Dani showed that he is a two-way player and that he can scrap with anyone in the midfield. He was turned back a few too many times in the face of traffic, but so was Arsenal in general. Certainly improvements to be made on his game, but he looked more effective in combining with Ødegaard to try to find the space to wriggle through Benfica’s setup.

Ceballos ended with 74 passes (93%), 3/3 in long balls, 2 crosses, 1 key pass, 5/5 duels won, 2/2 tackles, 1/1 dribbles, 2 interceptions, and 8 recoveries. It was a second straight game in which he has shown signs of life during a tough season for the Real Madrid loanee. If he can recapture the form many hoped he would have for the full season, it could go a long way toward Arsenal making something of this season late.

Ødegaard was one of the brightest spots in Arsenal’s game, if not the brightest, and this midfield duo seem to have a decent connection. It’s unclear how Arteta is going to look to balance Smith Rowe and Ødegaard for the remainder of the year, but there are early signs of the difference in levels between the two — with all the respect in the world for Smith Rowe.

Mikel seemed frustrated with the way his vision was carried out

A benefit of not having crowds in the stadium is the fact that you can often hear the managers. In this case, you could hear Arteta shouting quite a bit with an edge of frustration in his voice.

Urging Arsenal to push forward, look positive, drive at Benfica, I’m not sure Arteta was pleased by the way his vision was carried out. He wanted it forward, wanted a bit more dare to the game, yet Arsenal were hesitant to oblige.

It’s important to mention his because it suggests that will be a talking point during Arsenal’s reflection on this match — and it needs to be. If the aim was to be a bit more daring, to get after Benfica as they should have, I find myself more hopeful for the second leg. Rather than having the manager content with the result, content with how his team probed an unfamiliar team, Arteta seems to be a frustrated one that wanted something different, something more, from his creative players.

Of course it is his job to get that from them, and it now becomes a point of emphasis for the second leg, but there are reasons that everyone within the side should be frustrated by this. To feel like it wasn’t carried out to plan hopefully means we see adaptations.


A team that set out to keep the margins tight and keep themselves compact managed to do it. A frustrating night because Arsenal should have gotten more from the match, but the away goal matters. Sadly 1-1 won’t make Benfica feel the need to expand themselves. Arsenal needed to do better with their chances, didn’t, and paid for it with a PK that felt quite harsh.

It leaves Benfica in with a shot and it will demand a response. We mostly knew that the tactics used against Leeds weren’t going to be a fit for every single match, and that was shown against Benfica. It was tough sledding and Benfica did the job they set out to do.

The matches don’t get easier as Arsenal will now have to head into a difficult match against Manchester City.

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