So here we are folks. This will either be the latest in a number of important match days for Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal team this season, or it will be the last meaningful match day for Arsenal, as we take on Olympiak……sorry….Benfica….in Athens to progress to the next stage of the Europa League and be in the hat for the draw which I think takes place tomorrow.
This game has massive significance in the bearing of the season because I think most of us have, by now, accepted that we aren’t going to qualify for the Champions League via our league position and even the Europa League is looking slimmer and slimmer by the day right now. So it is winning the Europa our bust and whilst I think even that is an outside bet with some of the teams still in the competition, I am only really looking at tonight’s game in isolation at the moment. It is the only way you can.
Benfica proved a tough nut to crack in the first game, but we also didn’t make it easy for ourselves, conceding a silly penalty (again) and missing a few very good chances, including one from Aubameyang after a nice cross from Bellerin. If those chances come again tonight then we simply must take them.
I think tonight’s game will have a different feel about it to the one last week though. Certainly from an Arsenal perspective, because we can’t afford to go too gung-ho and get caught on the counter. Benfica have some tricky and nippy forwards who will catch us out if we commit too many men forward. From our side the away goal works against us tonight, so if they score first it will be 11 men camped into their own box and a low block that will be difficult to break down and could make for a very frustrating night for us. We have struggled to break down low block teams ever since Mikel arrived and if Benfica go ahead for the second time in the leg, I do worry what it will mean for us.
However, if we score first and they have to come on to us, well that could change the dynamic of the game completely. We have the creative and attacking players to take advantage of an older back line with a central defensive partnership of Ottamendi and Verthongen. IF they are forced to press higher there could be gaps in behind, which is why I hope that Arteta opts for Aubameyang again. I know Lacazette hasn’t played in the last three games, but this doesn’t feel like a match that is ideal for him to be honest. It feels like somebody like Auba running in to space would be a better bet.
And of course if we are ahead with the first goal of the game and the Benfica defence don’t press higher up the pitch, that will create more space in between midfield and attack for us, as the gaps open up, so I would be looking to the likes of Smith-Rowe to be getting on and finding pockets of space to exploit them. If he is allowed to pick up the ball in between the lines of Benfica defence and midfield, then we can be excited tonight, because I think he might get joy. But that does of course depend on those two midfielders behind him in the pivot finding him. Xhaka I have no worries about, but assuming Ceballos is good to play (please god, not Elneny), then he needs to also find Smith-Rowe in those pockets of space too. That trio and how often they could connect could be a massive factor in whether we win tonight. If their interplay allows us to break through Benfica, then it will create space for others.
Of course in goal we’ll see Leno, then I suspect the back four will be Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel and Tireney. I’ve already mentioned Xhaka and Ceballos but I wonder if Partey will get some minutes at some stage tonight. He’s been included in the squad and so hopefully he is fit, but given we don’t seem to have been able to have him for any length of time this season, I hope Arteta is super cautious with him. Even if he just gets 15 or 20 minutes at the end I’d be fine with that, but we don’t want him breaking down again as soon as he’s back on the pitch.
I’ve already stated my preference for ESR operating in that floating connector role and despite the number of minutes played this season you can’t leave out Saka, but who operates on that left hand side I wonder? Pepe hit form for a few weeks in there, but I think Arteta will have a serious consideration whether to play Odegaard. He may not play on the left – it might be Odegaard through the middle and ESR out wide left, but I think it really is a toss up between the two.
I’m leaning a bit more towards Pepe because we haven’t seen Odegaard’s end product so far, whereas Pepe has plenty of goals in this competition and therefore could be a sensible option. But given he didn’t plat in the first leg, it could easily be him that is missing from the start.
Hey, at least we might have some bench options in that instance. So it will be incumbent on Mikel to use them if we need a change in style and approach because we are behind. That is where many have criticized since he arrived at the club and it’s hard to disagree when you think of the number of times our subs have turned around a game from losing to winning positions under the manager. It hasn’t happened to often and so if we find ourselves hit by Benfica this evening, we have to pray Arteta can get it right with his changes.
I think that’s pretty much it from me today. Back tomorrow with either a joyous post match review, or a post mortem of both our European hopes, as well as our season in general.
Catch you peeps then.