Are you still sweating? I’m still sweating. Bits of frustration coupled with a lot of joy at watching them win. We are through! That’s what matters. Thats what MATTERS!
Sometimes I have to remind myself of that. I love watching Arsenal, truly, but when you write blogs about it or cast our your opinions for others to read and pick apart, it makes watching the games a little bit more analytical — an exercise in assessment. If I put that hat on, there were certainly a few red flags — issues with the adjustments made, the tempo, mixed feelings about the substitutions, things we will talk about in this article, but it’s important to take a moment and just be happy we won and are through to the next round.
Okay! Now we get to talk about the match itself, and the tie as a whole. If I had a summary for it: Average teams do things the hard way.
It was almost the title of the article itself because it’s been a theme of Arsenal’s season. Be it red cards, silly mistakes, naive coaching, poor finishing — Arsenal seem take the most difficult route quite often. Inevitably, the conversation of luck comes up during the course of a season. It’s a real factor, I don’t deny that, but I’m often reminded of one of my favorite sayings: the best teams make their own luck.
Yesterday, Arsenal controlled the field position and most of the possession, they held Benfica to only 2 shots on goal, but there were a lot of sloppy errors and poor, technical letdowns that lead to Benfica running at Arsenal’s backline with numbers up. Of course, both Benfica’s goals came from mistakes as well.
In fact, I even found myself exhaling a sigh of relief when Benfica’s attacker stumbled over their own dribble or picked out the wrong ball on the counter attack on multiple occasions in the first half. Just as Arsenal were getting ready to go into the half with a lead, Ceballos gave away a silly foul on a lunging tackle, opening the door for a screamer of a free kick. Tip of the cap on that hit, but a silly mistake and a costly one.
Unfortunately for Ceballos, his mistakes weren’t done for the day. It was his attempted header back to Leno off Benfica’s punt that fell short of the mark and gave Benfica the lead and a glimpse of progression. Two mistakes, two shots on goal, two goals. I’m really not sure what Ceballos is thinking there, but truly, if he heads the ball in any other direction, including straight up in the air, things probably end up just find for him.
I couldn’t imagine a tougher path for Arsenal to create for themselves. But in times of trouble, when heads go down, a successful team finds out who their players really are. In Arsenal’s case, you find out which players you should be building your future around. In my mind, those players stepped up — Saka, Tierney, Aubameyang, and I’d consider adding in Partey who wasn’t overly special in his minutes, but is still simply better than our other options and had an impact.
Saka was outstanding. Special. Exquisite. Resplendent. How many times do you say it and how many superlatives can you use? This kid has surpassed every expectation you could have thrown at him and he’s continuing to grow.
Tierney, an absolute fighter. When Benfica scored the second, things got tense and nervy, he’s still getting after it with fire, and was rewarded with a goal from an absolute lash with the left peg. An outstanding finish, left back fact aside, and his urgent reaction to his own goal shows his mindset. Lets. Get. More.
These are the type of performances that assure you they are players worth building this team around. Rising to the occasion, producing, showing that Tierney-fire, and leading a team that, frankly, needs leaders. These are the players you model the next iteration of this team off of.
In the end, Arsenal have won, and that is what matters most, especially in a competition like this. Arsenal will progress, they will get a new draw, a clean slate, and they’ll get two more legs to work with. As a fan, seeing your team claw back and fight their way to overcome adversity is nice, even if overcoming that adversity is saving them from themselves.
Before the match, I tweeted that I was feeling relatively calm… how naive I am! It wasn’t fun, but it was fun. It wasn’t good, then it was great. And thank GOD for Bukayo Saka this year.
Handful of takeaways below!
Unimpressed with Arteta’s alterations and tweaks from leg 1
Throughout this year I have been quite consistent in my stance that this is a learning year for Arteta, one that he needs to show clear signs of learning and progress during, but his heavy scrutiny will begin next season. That stance is made easier by the belief that Arsenal would have their struggles this season and the team would need a second summer to complete their rebuild. That doesn’t excuse where we are at, I think it’s still been a poor season even by those standards, but my patience is still intact since I always believed the goal was to have Arteta’s growth and the team overhaul intersect one another.
This stance has come with a lot of defending, arguing, and calming the masses, but I have tried to still point out things he needs to improve on, or some of his shortcomings beyond just saying “we lost, he’s shit”.
I have to say, I was unimpressed with the tweaks or changes from the first leg, or lack of changes. I wasn’t surprised that Arteta went with the same lineup, my predicted lineup was actually spot on, so that made sense to me. However, my prematch blog talked about key areas I thought Arsenal had to have answers for, and those answers needed to come from Mikel.
I talked about:
- Answering Benfica’s 3-5-2 formation with their mid-block
- Play dying with the fullbacks and lacking that tempo
- Overall tweaks to the system that would create more chances
I thought Arsenal struggled once more in being dangerous against Benfica’s higher line and compact midfield presence. Benfica changed things, it created more errors, and Arsenal didn’t really respond beyond maintaining most the possession and probing around from the outside for enough of the game.
I thought play still continued to get clogged down the channels, although the injection of Tierney made a huge difference with Smith Rowe dropping into midfield and giving Tierney the full run of the flank. Still, they didn’t smoothly get the ball into Ødegaard’s feet often enough, and Bellerin struggled to attack with the pace needed to catch Benfica out on their defensive switch from side-to-side.
Arsenal still controlled the match, still did some really great things, but mostly rested on some moments of individual brilliance. I admit that part of the system’s job is to create the space and offer stars the ability to shine, but this didn’t quite feel like that. I thought Arteta was saved from a real onslaught of criticism, even if the loss had come at the hands of their own mistakes. More games to prove himself!
Lets chat Aubameyang
I already talked about the fact that Saka, Tierney, and Partey have shown themselves to be the three main pillars I would be building the next iteration of this team around. Possibly you add in someone like Gabriel, or even Martinelli if he continues to recover and progress, but those three have the technical skills, the fire, the production, and the personalities that I want to see as the cornerstones.
Others may be looking for Aubameyang’s name on the list considering the club just signed him to a significant contract. Aubameyang struggled in the first leg, and still needs to find ways to offer Arsenal a little more beyond finishing, but he came up when Arsenal needed him to and did it in a major way.
Tim Stillman, of the extremely popular Arseblog, recently called him Arsenal’s Jaime Vardy and it could become a very apt comparison. He’s a low touch player with the ability to get himself on the end of goalscoring opportunities and make them count. It’s something that works just fine if that is the clear understanding of his role and he has the players behind him to give him those opportunities.
For Arsenal, those situation haven’t been fed to him enough this season, and his finishing hasn’t been as prolific as the clout he carries suggests. But, despite those struggles, he has continued to plug along and come up big lately. It’s actually put him back in position as Arsenal’s lead goal scorer in all competitions.
He may not be the player to offer Arsenal beautiful link up played, hold up play, or the ability to really bang with big defenders, but he is someone who finds space, finds his left-center channel, gets himself on the ball or makes the run to get into scoring positions, and that’s a big deal.
It feels like Arteta is coming to a similar conclusion and that’s why we are seeing the usage of this system that puts three creative, ball-playing midfielders and wingers directly around him. Low touch is only a problem, if he needs to take a lot of touches to get into scoring positions. Something very worth keeping any eye on. The kid may be alright.
Is it the end for Ceballos?
Understandably, Ceballos took a lot of heat after the match for his two mistakes leading to goals, especially that diabolical decision to try to head the ball back to Leno from about 40 yards out.
What’s unfortunate for Dani is that he was probably the more influential of the two central midfielders in the pivot through 60 minutes, if you removed the mistakes. But you can’t remove the mistakes, you have to take those into account and it speaks to one of Ceballos’ larger flaws.
Ceballos has an extremely high ceiling of potential. We saw after the Covid break when his numbers put him in the same breath as some of the Premier League’s best. Ceballos also has an extremely low floor when it comes to his off days. We saw a prime example of that yesterday. The issue lies in the fact that Dani rarely finds a consistent middle ground for extended periods of time.
He has a good week, he has a bad week. He puts together a good final month last season, he struggles to hit the ground running this season. And when Arsenal are staring down the barrel of having to make a decision about his future, it’s a major turn off. In fact, it nearly shuts down the whole thing.
Is this the end for Ceballos at Arsenal? Im going to say no because there is a lot of football left to play, especially if Arsenal remain in the Europa League, but it comes close to ending the “should we sign him” debate. With Partey healthy and Xhaka providing a more consistent level of play, Ceballos will likely find himself another peg down after today, and he can’t be that upset about it. He saved the FA Cup run last season and came close to ending Europa League chances this season. We will see if he gets a chance to bounce back at some point.
The draw for the next round is coming your way today at 12 BST. Fingers crossed Arsenal get a favorable draw! God forbid they draw Spurs and we end up playing Tottenham 3 times in one week! I don’t think my heart could handle it!