Arsenal are off to Greece for the home leg of their two-legged, Europa League tie with Benfica. The nerves of being knocked out on away goals in a tie that saw neither team play a true home game is real, but Arsenal will want to put things away early and keep this comfortable.
No one needs an additional reminder of what happened last season in the Europa League, and Arsenal don’t have a fall back avenue into the Europa League quite like the FA Cup. While the Premier League still offers an option, technically, the path through that avenue is extremely daunting. It makes the Europa League their best, if not only, shot at finding salvation this season.
To do that, they will have to bring the same level of dominance they had in the first leg, but with quite a bit more bite in the attack to make it count. While Arsenal had nearly 60% of the ball, they struggled to do much against Benfica’s 3-5-2 defensive shape.
Benfica kept their midfield and front compact while pushing their line up a higher than the traditional low block; it frustrated Arsenal for most of the match. Benfica didn’t create much in terms of dangerous opportunities but coming into this match level (down on away goals) won’t stress them out to start. Expect a very similar shape and a plan to pick and choose their moments to expand themselves.
Arsenal should get the services of Kieran Tierney back which will help alleviate the troubles they had attacking through their fullbacks, and may even get the services of Thomas Partey back which would make a world of difference when it comes to injecting quality and positive intent into their midfield.
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. Eliminating the mistakes, cutting down on the substitution difficulties, and figuring out how to tweak his plan in subtle but impactful ways.
This match is all about that last one. Arsenal saw who and what Benfica are. They were frustrated in a lot of ways but the opportunity is there to tweak and control this second leg. As Gooners around the world are looking for some sign of life in the Europa League, a win in the second leg is a MUST.
Arsenal hasn’t released official teams news but Arteta did comment on it during his press conference.
Unfortunate to hear that Rob Holding’s considerable blow to the head against Manchester City did result in a concussion, but good to see the team taking it seriously.
As for Partey, everyone will have their fingers crossed that he is healthy enough to play, or not forced into action. I confidently believe that Arsenal could beat Benfica without Partey’s services, but it’s hard to imagine they can climb to the heights they so desperately need should he get injured again this season.
Not sure that this would be a fan favorite, but I genuinely believe that Arteta will select the exact same lineup for the second leg as he did for the first, except for the inclusion of Kieran Tierney.
Arteta came in with the plan for the first leg, and while there were tweaks and fixes worth making, Arsenal controlled the game and should probably have left with more than a 1-1 draw. It’s this reason that I think we see the return of the same starting shape, but I expect some earlier usage of substitutions.
Many people will be calling for the inclusion of Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe who were excluded from the starting eleven in the first leg, but it’s worth noting that Arsenal tallied zero shots after Pepe and Martinelli were brought on in the 77th minute. There are a variety of reason to explain this, including Benfica’s willingness to sit deeper and more compact as the matched headed toward a draw, but there was a noticeable drop off in attacking prowess, even from the low bar that had already been set. For this reason, and continuity, I think we see the same front four, assuming Ødegaard isn’t rested completely.
If Partey is 100% fit, something only Arteta knows, he will of course play, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him used as a second half substitute to change up the feel of the midfield, while Arteta saves his starting services for future matches. I would expect him to get some minutes in his legs still.
The other major point of argument will of course be the right back position in which I have selected Bellerin. It’s been an interesting point of disagreement between the fans and manager… and other fans. Of course with Tierney’s injury we haven’t seen a lot of opportunities for Mikel to select between the two right backs, but when the substitutes came in it was Soares making way and when the line up came out for City it was Hector in.
Bellerin seems to get the nod a lot and if I had to guess, it has a lot to do with his role tucking into the midfield as an underlap that finds the right channel, compared to Soares’ proclivity to overlap. This Bellerin role serves two functions: offering an option more central in support of the wide winger that has lead to 3 assists (second highest in the team), but mostly it’s about having a present defender to break up a counter attacking opportunities that may come from Arsenal turnovers. Bellerin has 8 yellow cards in the Premier League this season in under 25 fouls total. It’s a sign that the task he has often leads to that sort of “professional-fouling” result.
I expect another slower match in which Benfica look to make the task laborious for Arsenal. Every time Arsenal get beyond one layer of defense, up will step the next. Navigating through the midfield and getting themselves into dangerous areas won’t come easy.
Despite not creating much, Benfica will have gained confidence in their tactics from the first leg and will carry some belief that they can keep the margins tight and pick and choose the right moments to attack. They know a win sees them through, a draw at 1-1 gives them a great chance, and a draw on 2-2 gives them a major edge. The only fear they have is keeping the game level 0-0 late into the match and coming up short. Otherwise it will be on Arsenal to beat them.
Arsenal will need to have made adjustments to their game and fixed three problem areas:
- Responding to Benfica’s 3-5-2 and making inroads through their compact middle
- More effective play from the fullbacks
- Tweaks to how their own front three helps in getting the ball between the lines and into dangerous areas
If they manage to do that, and still impose their style of play early, I expect a good win for Arsenal.