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In some (not so) distant future some young Arsenal fan — curious about the beginning of the by then wondrous Arteta years and looking to learn more about how the journey started – poring over the results of this surreal 2020-21 season will likely be at a loss to come up with an explanation of why his beloved team had embarked on a tour of the ancient capitals of the Mediterranean to play against the Portuguese stalwarts of Benfica (or S.L.Benfica, or Sport Lisboa e Benfica). Portuguese football’s most decorated team, a major force in the European football in the 1960s, and of course the club graced by the superlative genius of one Eusébio, Benfica has remained a perennial contender for the top honors in Portuguese football with their last Primeira Liga title coming in 2018-19.

Exchanging Tagus in favor of Tiber, Arsenal arranged to play the first leg away match against Benfica — for the round of 32 in 2020-2021 Europa League — not at Estádio da Luz in Lisbon but Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Last time we had played there, a young Arsenal team won 7-6 at penalties (after losing 1-0 at the end of extra time and with an 1-1 aggregate across both legs) against Francisco Totti led Roma in the Champions League of 2008-2009 season. And then there was also of course the memorable Thierry Henry show in November 2002 when the Henry hattrick gave us a 3-1 victory in the Champions league group stages.

Following the last weekend’s assertive 4-2 victory against Leeds in the league, the overall mood going into this match has been mostly optimistic. Much of the discussions in the preceding days had centered around the possible starting line-up. Mikel, already renowned for his inscrutability in press conferences, has also been typically unpredictable in his team selections. Except, of course, always giving Willian some playing minutes – I kid, I kid.

He chose to start the same eleven that played with such fluidity and technical quality last Sunday. Lacazette and Pépé can be forgiven for feeling a little cast aside for missing out on the starting eleven on this occasion despite playing reasonably well in the league matches before the Leeds match. I am sure there is a blueprint for how Mikel and his coaching team want to approach this challenging sequence of four games – Benfica, Manchester City, Benfica, Leicester – in little more than a week and they are following their plan.

In addition to Lacazette, Pépé, Martinelli et al. it was also encouraging to note the return of Kieran Tierney in the bench. Which made Thomas Partey as the only key player missing from the squad at this time.

This is the first time Mikel had started the same eleven in two consecutive matches. And the first time Arsenal had started two consecutive matches with the same eleven since September of 2018, in the early days of Mikel’s fellow Basque Unai Emery. That’s quite an extraordinary statistics by itself and can be explained in many different ways… injuries and inconsistencies being the two main reasons one would suspect.


Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Cedric

Ceballos – Xhaka

Saka – Ødegaard – ESR


The team started on the front foot dominating possession and controlling the center of the pitch. Both ESR and Saka started narrow and Ødegaard was given a more free-flowing role, combining deftly with Ceballos and Saka, sometimes dropping further deep to combine with Bellerin to create overloads on the right.

Our very first attack – down the left with Auba spinning forward trying to break the offside trap, unsuccessfully – on the 2nd minute set a pattern for the match: Arsenal trying to quickly break through Benfica’s high defensive line, and Benfica defense admirably sticking to their job and moving back and forward with an organization and clarity that demonstrated how well Jorge Jesus had drilled and prepared his team against the pace of Arsenal forward line on the break. Both Aubameyang and Saka were frustrated time and again by Benfica’s well-orchestrated defense and caught offside. They were also well prepared for the over-the-top long ball from David Luiz and Gabriel, especially with the Helton Leite willing to come quickly outside of his area to clear out the ball. There were a few moments where it was obvious that his courage to play the sweeper role is not sufficiently complemented by the ability to read the situation correctly and this may be an area Arsenal can target in the “home” leg at Athens. Around 18th minute one such clearance was just headed out by Helton right from the feet of ESR.

A minute later Arsenal should have been one-nil up. Bellerin, who had been one of the busiest players on the pitch with constantly running up and down the touch line and running behind the defense on the outside of Saka, was set up by Ødegaard (or was it Ceballos?) as Hector ran on to a through ball and then put in a perfectly weighted ball for our captain to simply tap in past the goalkeeper. Aubameyang had timed his run well but missed the target completely. Captain Auba all throughout his career has always been prone to the occasional bouts of these types of inexplicable misses. His shot conversion rate for Arsenal has been quite extraordinary (thankfully so given the paucity of our creative play and chance creation rates over much of his time at Arsenal) and much better compared to his career record. The timing of the run was perfect and hopefully he would put this miss behind easily for the upcoming matches, even though for the rest of this match it had visibly impacted him. 

Ødegaard was playing with the composure and technical quality reminiscent of the many memorable Arsenal midfielders over the Wenger years. Around 27th minute he was involved in an eye-catching build up play with Saka from which Saka shot straight at the goalkeeper. There was another wonderfully intricate move around 40th minute with Ødegaard again at the center of it.  However he was also guilty of overplaying in that move instead of taking an early shot. A little bit of more incisiveness in his decision making in the final third and he will be a truly wonderful player.

In between around 32nd minute there was a moment of scare when a rare foray by Benfica led to a shot that Leno caught easily but the ball slipped out of his hands and he regained it in the second attempt.

We had also earned a few corners in the first half, with Ødegaard taking on the corner duty. Not much came off any of them.

In addition to the well-drilled defense, Benfica was also not shy of following the examples of various PL clubs in taking turns at bringing Saka down to not let him run with the ball at his feet. Someone called Vertonghen – have you ever heard of him? Must have used to play in some awful club before this lucky upgrade to Benfica – was particularly guilty of it.

Granit Xhaka has lately been more forward thinking and full of verticality in his passing and movement than he had ever been in Arsenal colors. It definitely has helped him to have someone as mobile and intelligent as Emile Smith-Rowe in front of him. But in this match Xhaka relapsed back to one of his stodgy, negative performances with continuously slowing down our attacking play and even missing some simple cross-field pass, even though from a purely defensive perspective he did his job of covering the left side well enough whenever Cedric joined the attack. To me this was a very tired performance and let us hope that before the City match Xhaka rediscovers his recent brightness of form. From one such moment of tired passing just before the half time we almost conceded only for Dani Ceballos to run back and provide a block as Benfica pounced on Xhaka’s loose pass to spring a rare attack.

Benfica started the second half with two substitutions. We came out unchanged but started brightly with Saka taking on a lead role. Once he almost put ESR through and Emile’s shot was well saved by the goalkeeper but the offside flag was raised anyway. A minute or so later we again overloaded on the right and Saka after neatly carving up some space for him to shoot on his favored left foot put the ball wide off the mark. This was turning out to be one of those days.

That feeling of quiet desperation — that we Arsenal supporters have lately become a little too familiar with — started to make its presence felt as a rather unfortunate sequence of events led to us conceding a very soft goal. Arsenal defense didn’t clear their lines when there was a chance and Benfica earned a corner. From the short corner the attempted cross ricocheted off ESR’s right arm as he was jumping while turning and to keep balance had his arm stretched a bit away from his body. It is a true 50-50 decision and the VAR ruled in favor of the Turkish referee’s original penalty decision. Benfica captain Pizzi stepped up and scored. Leno should be disappointed to not save the attempt as he had guessed the direction and the height accurately and the shot was not aimed at the corner. Pizzi matched Eusébio’s record of 7 goals in an any European competition for a Portuguese club.

Benfica 1 (Pizzi 55’) – Arsenal 0

A few minutes later Arsenal equalized. Aubameyang from a central position on the edge of the box passed to Ødegaard who set Cedric up with a perfectly weighted pass through the defense and Cedric’s cross was finished adroitly by Saka.

Benfica 1 (Pizzi 55’) – Arsenal 1 (Saka 57’)

Around 63rd minute Aubameyang had his second glorious chance of the evening when set up by Ødegaard with only goalkeeper to beat. The angle was not the easiest but that is typically a bread-and-butter finish for Auba on his right foot. He shot wide.

Immediately after Tierney replaced Cedric. For the rest of the match he played well enough, but understandably also played well within himself and not attempting one of his bursting runs flying past the defenders. ESR combined well with Tierney on the left, and so did Pépé when he later came on for Aubameyang as a part of double substitution on the 77th minute including Gabriel Martinelli replacing ESR and moving in centrally.

Just before the substitution Aubameyang missed another excellent opportunity when Gabriel – whose long-range passing was noticeable for their positivity and intelligence even though the execution on a few occasions could have been better – delivered a wonderful ball over the entire Benfica midfield and defense for Aubameyang to run onto. Auba controlled the ball well enough but instead of taking a shot on his left foot tried to switch to his right and in the moment a retreating Benfica defender did enough to put him off. On another day Auba could have had a hattrick.

Benfica had a little bit more of possession in the second half and did carve out a couple of presentable opportunities one of which required Leno to make a flying save. Pépé combining well with Kieran went in the penalty box beating the last defender but couldn’t manage to make a final pass or shot. In the closing minutes Elneny replaced Dani – who has had an effective game on both ends of the pitch — and Willian came on for the excellent Ødegaard. The match ended with the 1-1 scoreline that from Arsenal perspective must be very frustrating even though “not the worst result” as Saka pointed out after the match.    

Even though this away goal means that if we simply manage to not concede in our home away from home at Athens we will go through, I don’t think we can or even should try to set up that way in that match next Thursday. We are capable of scoring a goal or two, if not more, and going with a clear intent to win – while staying vigilant at the back – will be the better option. 

As the second half progressed today Saka and ESR I thought were betraying signs of tiredness in their passing and decision making even though their work rate remained exemplary. They are two exciting young players who both have a great future ahead of them, and in coming years can form a formidable creative partnership. Hopefully they will both be used carefully with enough time to recuperate in between so that there are no setbacks.  

16 Drinks to “A Work In Progress”

  1. 1
    Steve T says:

    First. Get in. If only PEA had been so on song.

    Now to read the report.

  2. 2
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    Nice one Doc. The opening line was an absolute cracker! 🤣

    I’m not too concerned about the tie. We should have won, Auba was certainly not as blistering as Steve!

    But we were much the better side and if we can’t beat them in the second leg then we won’t have deserved to go through and it is as simple as that. I expect we will though.

  3. 3
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    The team selection for City is very interesting now. I certainly expected a couple of last night’s starters to be rested for Sunday. I’m already thinking about the League again though. I’ve said that I don’t think we can take our eye off it and I’m really up for seeing how we do against what is, on form, clearly best team in the country.

    I bet Arteta has been thinking long and hard about how to setup against Pep. After Bielsa said Arteta out-coached him I am eager to see what the boss has in mind against his former boss…

  4. 4
    BtM says:

    An insightful and interesting summary, Dr F. I thought the Arsenal managed to make Benefica look much better than they are last night. I had expected a 3-0 win and that, at least, should have been the final score. We’ll be fine in the second leg.

  5. 5
    Uplympian says:

    A well honed report Dr F. The result which was a little disappointing on the run of play but should be put right in the 2cnd leg.
    I agree with you that both Saka & Emile looked very leggy in the last 20 mins and both should have been subbed off ( only Emile eventually ) and I’m concerned at Arteta overplaying them.
    The Benfica manager must have read GG’s coaching manual as they gave the most disciplined offside defending I’ve seen since the days of our famous back 4, our forward play struggled to overcome this, particularly in the first half.
    Its all set fair for progress in Piraeus next week.

  6. 6
    bathgooner says:

    An enjoyable report, Dr F with a fine dusting of geography and history on top.

  7. 7
    Osakamatt says:

    A fine report, thanks Dr F.
    Frustrating as others have
    said, I think we drew the first
    leg last time too.
    On to the league leaders and
    form team in Europe then😁

  8. 8
    TTG says:

    I think we saw exactly the same game. That’s technologically reassuring if nothing else! I think we could have played a weaker team or at least a rotated team and achieved a similar if not better result . Benfica are an ultra- conservative team based on last night . I remember Benfica in the sixties and this lot aren’t remotely close in style or quality .
    You put your finger on some key points. Auba had a ‘ couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’ day , Xhaka couldn’t have been more negative and peripheral if he tried but Ceballos and Ødegaard were enterprising and pretty effective and Saka was key again . When you equalise so soon after the other team take the lead it makes you wonder if you were playing at the right tempo before .
    Next week will be tricky but if we have any aspirations to win this we have to be able to turn them over . Lesson 1 will be springing their offside trap . George Graham must be their Consultant !

  9. 9
    bt8 says:

    Excellent and highly readable report Dr. F and much appreciated as, excepting highlights (Auba’s first miss, ESR’s penalty conceded and the goals) I didn’t see the game being temporarily lacking in streaming and televisual options. If Birnam Wood doth move then heavy cannon doth need to be sent into the Hellenic theatre. COYG

  10. 10
    Trev says:

    TTG, springing their offside trap will be a lot easier if we can manage to play a forward ball without taking six touches and eight square and backwards balls first.

    We do now have a top notch creator or two in midfield and we need to use them quickly without pinging return passes backwards and forwards first. Ødegaard found a ton of space in midfield last night but was almost ignored for much of the first half.

    If Tierney is fit next week, I would play Cedric at RB and give Bellerin a rest. He scored a good goal against Leeds admittedly but was poor going forwards last night and off the pace defending our right side. Cedric would be entitled to feel offended if left out after filling in well at LB for the last few weeks.

  11. 11
    TTG says:

    The U23s lost 2-0 at home to Manchester City tonight. Let’s hope that doesn’t become a pattern for the weekend . Balogun was absent but I wouldn’t expect to see him on Sunday

  12. 12
    bt8 says:

    Worth the listen, and then some.

  13. 13
    Steve T says:

    Cheers doc. Finally got round to reading it all.

  14. 14
    North Bank Ned says:

    Another excellent and well crafted report, Dr F. Managing the youngsters’ minutes will be crucial as we head for the pointy end of the season when their contributions could make the difference between a transition moving in the right direction and one that comes up short.

  15. 15
    Countryman100 says:

    Arseblog’s column worth reading if only to admire the headline ..

    Auba and Auba and Auba again …

  16. 16
    Pangloss says: