Morning folks and welcome to match day Thursday, with the Europa League in our sights, as a trip to Benfica on the horizon. Well, I say ‘trip to Benfica’, but what I actually mean is ‘neutral venue as part of two legs. Because As I bemoaned yesterday, the farce that is this current situation where we play two away legs is just underway as part of a pretty grueling 10 days or so that Arsenal have to contend with. There’s also the scary prospect of an in form City in the not-to-distant future but right now we have to focus on seeing if we can navigate what is undoubtedly the hardest opponent any team who won their group could have got.
Our reward for a completely flawless record was one of Portugal’s biggest teams, whilst so many other table toppers get near byes into the next round of the competition. It is tough but it is what it is and at least it’ll get the nervous blood pumping among us and like Robert Carlyle said in The World is Not Enough “What’s the point in living if you cannot feel alive?”.
I suspect we’ll certainly feel alive come 8pm and hopefully Mikel Arteta and his charges will too. They will need to navigate a Benfica side currently third in the Primeira League and are used to winning most matches and has we’ve seen with our own side, when you win more than you lose you begin to get the edge in terms of confidence. Thankfully we played well and won in our last match and my hope is that it stands us in good stead for tonight’s “away” leg.
I do wonder how Arteta approaches today’s game, however, because if Arsenal are going to ‘make the most’ of a rule like the away goals rule, then tonight is the night he needs to properly have a go and attack Benfica. Next Thursday goals that they get will count for extra and so tonight it is goals we score that will be valuable. It is a bit of a joke really that our ‘reward’ for finishing top and Benfica for finishing second was for them to get the disadvantage in the second leg, but let’s not dwell on that. Let’s instead focus on the fact that Arteta needs to go for goals tonight and that is why I suspect we will get an attacking team that will play. He certainly needs to play his best side and to me that means Leno in goal, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel and Cedric at left back (I know Tierney is back in training but I suspect he’s not fit enough to start the game and we don’t want to risk him). In midfield it s hard to look beyond Xhaka and Ceballos as the midfield pivot, but it is in attack where Arteta must make decisions.
For me he simply has to pick the four players in the best form and those players are Saka, Smith-Rowe, Aubameyang and Pepe. With those four you are surrounding Auba with pace and movement and the hope has to be that we can re-create the dynamism and chance creation of the Leeds game at the weekend. Pepe was rested so will be fresh and will be wanting to go out there with a point to prove. The Europa League has been a good competition for him this year and it is where he has bagged a lot of his goals and assists so I hope he’s got that in his mind when he takes to the field tonight.
But it is Saka who is the man in red hot blistering form right now. He was imperious against Leeds and his drive and trickery on the right appear to have really unlocked his potential. My hope is that we are only now beginning to see his steep ascent into greatness and I hope we get yet more evidence of that tonight.
But in Smith Rowe we also have a guy who has delivered movement and creativity to a side so sorely lacking before Christmas and I suspect he will be one of the first names on the team sheet tonight in that number 10 spot. His ability to move into space to create diagonal passing lanes for players has made the world of difference to our pattenrs of play and build up and as some other Arsenal fans have already alluded to, the fact that he has created those spaces, along with Odegaard at the weekend, makes you look at Ceballos and Xhaka a little differently. Both midfielders are capable enough – if not amazing – but if they have those passing areas forward and in to diagonal spaces, maybe there is a formula there that can work even without the excellent Thomas Partey.
Benfica are a side who prefer to play with possession and will try to press us higher up the pitch I think. I can’t confess to have watched a lot of their football but in Rafa and Everton they have those tricky attacking creative players with pace and ability. They like to play through balls and so I worry if we press too high with the likes of Holding, but our style has tended to be to draw our opponent on to us and then pass around their press. If we are able to do that with any kind of success tonight then there might be some joy tonight.
It won’t be easy, we may well concede, but I hope that Arteta lets the reigns go a little bit to see if we can lean in to the attacking threat that we now have with some of these in form youngsters.
Catch you all tomorrow with a match preview.