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Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Benfica in Rome ended up a frustrating night for The Arsenal who, despite playing well and creating the better chances, failed to pick up a deserved win that would have left Mikel Arteta’s team in the driving seat for next week’s second leg in Greece.
Rather surprisingly, with a fixture against the league leaders on Sunday, the manager opted to start the same eleven who did so well against Leeds United last week – and they deserved to leave Rome with more of an advantage.
Arsenal dominated possession throughout and Emile Smith Rowe was unlucky to concede a penalty against the run of play early in the second half. Benfica captain Pizzi dispatched it with relative ease to put the ‘home’ side ahead.
Earlier in the match, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had missed a great chance after Hector Bellerin freed himself from the opposition defence and laid the ball on a plate just 7-yards out.
However, having gone behind, it took Arsenal just a couple of minutes to equalise as Martin Odegaard played an exquisite through-ball that found an onrushing Cedric in acres of space, and his square ball allowed Saka to tap home. Aubameyang missed a couple more chances before the final whistle, in what can only be described as a drab encounter, and the captain will hope his unusually wasteful night will not prove to be too costly.
Above is the pass and position network until the first sub at 63 minutes and individual net possession value ratings from last night
Both Martin Odegaard and Cedric Soares possession value ratings would have hugely benefited from the sequence that saw Bukayo Saka equalise on 57 minutes.
Odegaard’s vision, weight of pass and his ability to find space continually stood out as he was seemingly involved in everything that Arsenal did well last night. He led The Gunners for Shot Creating Actions (3), Shot Assists (2), was joint top for Passes into the Penalty Area (4), second in Progressive Passes (5) and joint second for Pressures (12).
Above are heatmaps for Arsena’s starting XI that account for all open-play actions.
Emile Smith Rowe was replaced on 77 minutes by Gabriel Martinelli after he gave everything to try and produce something of note to overcome the penalty decision that went against him. It’s difficult having to judge his performance knowing he’s been shifted to the wing in order to accommodate the inclusion of Odegaard – but his off the ball movement was fantastic throughout and he’s one of the few players who genuinely speeds up our play – playing just one or two touch passes.
The heatmaps also highlight the different responsibilities between flanks with Bukayo Saka spending more and more of his time in the final third – as a result Dani Ceballos shows more of a right-hand bias covering his wing compared to left sided pivot Granit Xhaka.
Gabriel (14/22) and Luiz (10/16) had the lion’s share of long passes (passes further than 30 yards) as Arteta clearly instructed his centre backs to find space down either wing if available. Gabriel (88/101) and Granit Xhaka (81/93) led The Gunners for all attempted/completed passes on the night, however, no Arsenal player played more progressive passes than Dani Ceballos (7).
After his hattrick on Sunday it was disappointing to see Aubameyang miss a handful of decent chances. The danger now is that the second leg will descend into the type of occasion that resulted in Arsenal’s elimination last season. However, having been more than encouraged by the quality of chances created since the switch to a 4-2-3-1, you’d assume, should The Gunners replicate that chance creation, they’d have more than enough to qualify for the next round.
That’s all from me – next up is Manchester City on Sunday when Mikel Arteta again faces his old mentor.