Post Match Review
Three Talking Points: Arsenal 3 – 2 Benfica
On the day that Mr Potato Head transitioned to a gender neutral they/them play vegetable, infuriating masses of less sentient vegetables in the process, Arsenal produced a performance that strayed beyond traditional lines of analysis to push past Benfica and into the Round of 16 of the Europa League.
A game that had none of the hallmarks of a classic until it kind of did, initially bore all the warning signs of other memorable Arsenal capitulations. That was until, from the depths of Lady Luck’s pockets, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang combined with Bukayo Saka for the second time in the match to nudge Arsenal 3-2 ahead and ultimately through. All this just minutes before crashing out on away goals having never played a minute of football at home. Yeah, I know – it was that kind of tie.
Thursday’s game was a mid-season final for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. During the before times, a struggling young manager in a big job labelling a midseason second tier European tie a ‘final’ would usually precede a dreaded vote of confidence from the board. But not for this manager, because this is what Arsenal are now. Firmly ensconced in the dark-lands of enjoying majority support from the fanbase whilst simultaneously seeing the slide fail to improve on last season’s definitive slide into mediocrity, a defeat against the Benfica would do nothing to hasten a managerial change. Or even challenge the mindset of most that the direction of travel is the right one. Schrödinger’s progress: Arsenal are neither going backwards, standing still or progressing. We just are. Arsenal is. Or was. Or something.
One can only imagine the strain Mikel feels in private moments, for he’s perennially on the edge of being five minutes, a sending off, a spontaneous combustion away from having his head under the guillotine. He and his team lives to fight another day, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the 2020/21 Arsenal vintage is constantly on the verge of corking.
Part way through the first half, like the sun rising on a bad day, it dawned on me that the Arsenal’s starting XI contained two Real Madrid loanees. Martin Ødegaard’s little feet are understandably still in the process of trying to fill big boots. Arteta believes he has the talent and temperament to become one of the world’s best players. This is talk that usually follows Erik Haaland, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho or Bukayo Saka level displays, but these have yet to materialise into tangibles during the early stages of his North London loan.
It’s too early to judge the young Norwegian, and though he delivered a solid performance here, littered with intermittent flashes of vision – namely the pass for the offside Aubameyang goal – he is expected to grow into the tail end of the season, just when you suspect his foster parents might need him most. For this to happen, Arteta needs to start forcing the play through his number 11, as over two Europa League legs, the formation used smacks of the Unai Emery horseshoe more than the desired intent to utilise a traditional number 10.
Dani Ceballos, however, outside of having one of the more bizarre crowd chants heard at Emirates stadium, has delivered a mix bag during his extended season and a half loan from Spain. Pigeon-toed, in his best moments he plays in a style reminiscent of French beauty Robert Pires, though from a different position.
Neatly putting through Saka who put an effort just wide of the post in the first half, he’s also capable of picking out 60-yard passes, driving past players with neat footwork and a burst of pace and picking the ball up on the turn and speeding up his teams sometimes pedestrian transitional play. However, he rarely does more than one of these in a match and more often than not just grunts through games with puffed out cheeks. All bluster and little muster. It takes a moment to remember that he’d been seen as a potential solution to Real Madrid’s midfield when he’s hardly more than a transitional solution to Arsenal’s.
Clumsy in giving away the foul that Diogo Gonçalves brilliantly put beyond Arsenal’s German keeper from 25 yards to make it 1-1 just before half time, he was totally at fault for Benfica’s second, leaving Rafa Silva with a one on one with Leno before converting. Coming at a time where Arsenal were forcing their game on the ‘home’ side, this was the second in a brace of balls-ups that could have ended Arsenal’s season and sealed his legacy in England.
The club are going to have to make a decision on the Spaniard soon, and though Ceballos may have designs on playing in La Liga, it almost certainly won’t be in Madrid white. On what he has delivered so far, I’m far from convinced that the c£30m it would cost to secure his services wouldn’t be better used elsewhere.
After going 2-1 down, observers would be forgiven for thinking that Arteta had accidentally brought along Unai Emery’s Panic Manual. Build up play became laboured, sideways, slow, predictable. Benfica looked as if they could and would shut up shop. The manager had to make a change.
Bringing off Ceballos and a subdued Smith-Rowe, replacing them with the returning Thomas Partey and crowd favourite Willian, Arsenal reacted to an apparent change of shape with a heady mix of confusion and malaise. For a short while it looked as if the changes Arteta instructed had made the team less clear of their intention, so they resolved to factory settings and…did nothing.
Enter: Kieran Tierney, lord of the highlands. Combining with Willian, the young Scot used his quick feet to make a yard of space in the box and drove a stinging shot into the keeper’s bottom far corner. 2-2. The heart and soul of this Arsenal side, even on a day where he’s finding his way back to fitness, Tierney has the edge and determination to drag this team forward. A great goal, a great moment. Game on.
Flicking through the Panic Manual, Arteta opted for the kitchen sink formation he found on page 94 and took off Hector Bellerin for Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal were searching for a winner. Willian, in fairness to him, brought some balance and focus to the side as they sought to pull Benfica out of position and niggle themselves some space.
Thomas Partey, his technical assurance a welcome asset behind Ødegaard, allowed the team to keep possession and push forward. The latter found Saka on the right wing in a hint of space in the dying moments. This was all Arsenal’s number 7 needed to ping out a searching ball for Aubameyang, who was lingering at the back post. It found him and he found the net. Auba’s cartwheel celebration was released and Arsenal had won a strange, near famous, victory.
Arteta’s changes were odd again, seemingly unbalancing the team and leaving them with apparently little idea of what was being asked of them. All this despite the constant barking soundtrack of instructions he brings with him to every game. The quality in the squad bore out a result this time, but it’s definitely an area the manager needs to work on as the game’s get tougher from here on in.
Burn the club down, bank the insurance money, put Saka on a lifetime contract with an £100bn buy out clause and start all over again. He’s nudging his way, shoulder to shoulder, into the global elite of young talent and with some cute rebuilding around the young Englishman, Arsenal have it all to play for over the next few seasons. Don’t, and the hierarchy will be forever remembered as the board who couldn’t stop this brilliant young man from moving to Manchester. No one wants that, least of all Mikel Arteta who’d arguably be out of a job without him at his disposal.
Five goals and five assists since being moved to the right flank, it’s clear that Saka’s found his home. It’s also obvious that none of the opposition he’s faced have worked out how to handle him….bar trying to kick him off the park. Which doesn’t work, either. Lovely stuff.
Thursday night, an early kick off, Leicester lost against Slavia Prague ahead of their clash with Arsenal at the weekend, Arsenal came from behind to win and progress in Europe. A good night, made great by brilliant moments. I could complain, but who’d listen? Not Potato Head, that’s for sure.