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Arsenal are through to the last 16 of the Europa League, after Bakayo Saka’s delightful cross was nodded home by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the dying minutes of a tie that the Gunners almost contrived to lose.
Mikel Arteta sprung no surprises with his line-up and opted for the same 11 who were unlucky to leave Rome with a draw last week – minus Cedric Soares who made way for the fit again Kieran Tierney.
The opening exchanges saw Benfica drop deep – allowing little space on either flank as the ‘home’ team enjoyed the majority of possession. Around 20 minutes in, an incisive Bukayo Saka pass found Aubameyang, who dinked over goalkeeping Helton as Arsenal took a deserved lead.
As depicted above in the possession value plots, Benfica enjoyed their best spell of the match after falling behind and levelled just before half-time. Dani Ceballos needlessly fouled Julian Weigl on the edge of the area and Diogo Goncalves curled the resulting free-kick into the top corner.
On the hour mark, and completely against the run of play, Ceballos was again at fault as his attempted header back to Bernd Leno let Rafa Silva steal in and pass the ball into an empty net. Shortly afterwards, substitute Willian left Kieran Tierney with plenty to do before he drove the ball low into the bottom corner and gave the Arsenal belief they needed ahead of Aubameyang’s late winner.
Arsenal had more possession and sustained threat in the final-third as shown in the above plots, but the game was played at a ponderous pace and The Gunners only accrued 10 shots – with just 4 of those coming after Tierney’s equaliser.
Before the arrival of Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe played through the middle and gave a different dynamic to this Arsenal side as he injected urgency into the attack. The Hale-End graduate isn’t having nearly the same effect out wide and was replaced after a difficult 63 minutes.
When questioned, Mikel Arteta said he opted to bring on Willian instead of Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli because of the lack of space and the need for special quality in tight areas. Somehow, his decision was vindicated when the Brazilian attacked the left half space and broke Benfica’s compact shape which in turn led to the equaliser.
Kieran Tierney delivered 12 of Arsenal’s 22 crosses as the Gunners tried to get the ball into the area against opposition who refused to vacate it. However, it was Saka’s second and last cross of the evening that produced the winner – after another match winning performance that saw him add 2 more assists to his tally in what is turning out to be an incredible season.
Willian completed 3 passes into the opposition area (tied 1st with Tierney) despite only playing 30 minutes in a decent performance, probably his best since the opening game against Fulham.
Hector Bellerin led Arsenal in passes (75/89) but with just 3 crosses and 1 successful penalty area entry. Granit Xhaka (77/83) and Martin Odegaard (66/74) tried their best to dictate play and find space against a stubborn low block, with the former playing more progressive passes (6) than any of his teammates.
However, Arsenal’s build up play was too slow and passive and there were countless times when the opposition were allowed to get back into a defensive shape as a result. It improved slightly after the introduction of Thomas Partey – who ranked 2nd for passes into the final third (7) – but this is an Arsenal side who desperately needed to up their tempo in the final third as they chased a potentially season defining goal.
With that said, it was great to see the club-captain produce not only a performance that saw him score twice, but his movement through the middle looked sharp throughout and had he not been a hair’s width offside, Aubameyang might have been celebrating a second hat-trick in less than a few weeks.
That’s all from me. Next up is a trip to the King Power and the chance to avenge an undeserved loss from earlier in the season against Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City.
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