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Arsenal-Benfica: A test of how much Arsenal learned

As Arteta heads toward the end of his first season, one that has strayed far from script, many fans will be keen to see clear signs of Mikel learning his trade and bettering himself.

Boarding a plane and traveling to Greece isn’t quite the home comfort normally associated with a London team’s home leg of a European knockout round, yet home in Greece is where Arsenal will look to extend the import of their season.

It’s never a great sign when your team faces the most important game of their season in the round of 32, but much like last year, it’s a result of Arsenal’s making. Last season, Arsenal bailed themselves out by bringing home the FA Cup, but that’s not a route they have at their disposal this season. It raises the stakes, it increases the tension, and makes the Gunners’ inability to finish in the first leg all the more frustrating.

Arsenal got themselves an ‘away’ goal in the opening leg against Benfica, but failed to capitalize on the dominance they had over the match in its entirety. That dominance, however, came with a heavy dose of frustration as Arsenal struggled to navigate themselves through Benfica’s defensive shape.

With nearly 60% of the ball, Arsenal only managed to produce one shot more than their Portuguese opposition, and steered half as many of their shots on target. The xG may have been in Arsenal’s favor — 1 – 1.7xG — but the fear of being sucker punched on away goals, or god forbid losing outright, is a very real demon in the minds of Gooners. No one needs additional reminding of last season’s second leg against Olympiacos after coming to the Emirates with a lead.

In order to avoid a second-straight year of European knockout trauma, Arsenal will have had to learn from their shortcomings, which means Arteta will have to have a few tactical tweaks dialed up to steer them to success. While it would be fair to feel some degree of confidence given the fact that Arsenal faced feeble attacking threat from Benfica for most the match, the strong willed resistance of their defensive shape presents problems.

After the first leg, I was left with three major problems that lead to Arsenal’s struggles, all of which Arteta need to account for and answer:

Benfica’s 3-5-2
If there was one aspect that will have taken a bit of time to feel out and probe, it was Benfica’s formation and defensive shape. Coming out in a 3-5-2, Benfica held their line slightly higher and really pushed out their midfield-five and front-two to make life difficult for Arsenal on the ball. This prevented them from setting up camp with their midfield pivot on top of the final third.

This meant, when Arsenal’s attacked was turned back and the Gunners were forced to retain possession, it often had to get circulated all the way toward the halfway line, rather than a quick recycle and switch of play.

Benfica-Arsenal (Leg 1) play areas.

Nothing exemplifies this difficulty quite like the 55% of the match that took place in the middle third. For reference, this is about 13-15% higher than when Arsenal play other teams that take up low block defensive positioning.

Benfica’s hybrid mid-low block is tricky and Arteta will have to have come up with a solution for breaking down and creating opportunities against a system that Arsenal won’t have faced often — or ever — in the Premier League.

Play dying with Arsenal’s fullbacks
Many people noticed that Arsenal’s fullbacks seemed unwilling to find Ødegaard’s feet in pockets of space. Bellerin was lambasted for this by fans after the match, but it really came from both fullbacks throughout. But the issue goes further.

Given Benfica’s 3-5-2 shape, and the tricky nature discussed up above, Arsenal were left to funnel the ball down the wings. Not necessarily a problem considering much of Arsenal’s attack is funneled down the wings, but Benfica had an answer for out wide and Arsenal’s fullbacks struggled to respond.

Turned back time and time again, poor passes, limited creativity — it was a real struggle for Arsenal to make headway when it got Bellerin and Soares’ feet. Soares did eventually get the assist, but overall Arsenal will need better from those positions. Kieran Tierney should be back which is definitely an improvement from Arsenal’s perspective, but Arteta will have to have emphasized the importance of attacking those spaces effectively against Benfica’s 3-5-2.

Tweaks to the system
This final aspect may not be a complete change as Arsenal look to breakdown Benfica’s defense, but Arteta deployed the same tactics we saw against Leeds and similar attacking aims used against Manchester City. Three creative players behind Aubameyang that see the left winger tuck very central and join Ødegaard on that level of the attack between the lines while Aubameyang shifts into the left-central channel. It almost creates a 4-2-2-2.

It was clear that this system worked perfectly against a side like Leeds’ in which there were those spaces to operate in and Leeds’ attack naturally vacated central areas and offered opportunities to transition; that wasn’t the case against Benfica and Arsenal struggled to get the ball into dangerous areas. Maybe the solution is as simple as creating more opportunities down the wings through better fullback play, but I will be keeping a keen eye on Arteta’s response to the first leg’s adversity.

Beyond these three keys, the best thing Arsenal can do for themselves is score early or take advantage of the opportunities they do work for themselves. Aubameyang had a torrid time in front of goal and it was painful to watch off the back of his three goal display the previous match. Improvements there may not lie with Arteta when it comes to game-to-game tweaks, but its a must if Arsenal want to add a bit of comfort to this second leg.

The 1-1 scoreline won’t be enough to bring Benfica out of their shell to begin with which means Arsenal will still want to impose themselves on the match and dictate play, while Benfica will look to bide their time and sniff out their opportunities to press Arsenal into mistakes.

“The biggest match of the year”, and every Arsenal fan will hope it’s only the first of a run of “biggest matches” on the way to Europe League success.

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