Alan Alger's Last Word column on Arsenal's Europa League draw with Benfica

Alan Alger's Last Word column is a must-read for Arsenal supporters everywhere

Alan Alger's Last Word column on Arsenal's Europa League draw with Benfica

Read Alan Alger's Last Word in the Gooner Fanzine

I made a fundamental error in my latest ‘Last Word’ column in trying to predict an Arsenal starting line-up. When last night’s team hit the airwaves it not only proved how wrong my prediction was, but also got me thinking that for nearly two decades I don’t think I’d have got a pre-match selection 100% correct across hundreds of our games.

The demands and differing priorities laid at the door of managers ensure that we are always kept guessing, although I’d have offered very good odds on an unchanged line-up from the Leeds game. Our first use of the same XI in consecutive games since Unai Emery used the September 2018 International break to field the same side two weeks apart in league victories at Cardiff and Newcastle

Sunday’s 4-2 win over Leeds ended nearly 100 hours before kick-off in Rome, there shouldn’t have been too many concerns about fatigue. That enabled Mikel Arteta to aim his strongest side at this first leg and spoke plenty about his targets. I did also mention in my last piece that, although both are unlikely, we have double the chance of winning the Europa League than we do of finishing in the top four in the Premier League.

The statement of intent in our starting eleven encouraged plenty of optimism from Gooners on social media, with a few people popping up with warnings that Benfica are far more dangerous opponents than other English clubs had landed in the draw. Note Tottenham’s comfortable win against an advertising slogan!

If you’re going to draw a first leg away game in European football then make sure it’s not a goalless one. We achieved that objective, but after a first half that promised so much more. The stats from the game do not reveal on paper exactly how dominant we were at periods, especially because of our tendency to get caught by the Portuguese side’s offside trap.

There were many marginal calls but the first half actually resulted in our highest offside total in a game since 2018 with seven, by the end of the game it reached a total of 10. Our highest for nearly a decade. Hopefully Arteta has noted that and ensured the forwards work on the timing of their runs, and the whole squad the timing of their forward passes. It did seem to have caught his eye and his annoyance - with many shots of him frustrated after our attacks broke down on the sight of a flag shown on BT Sport.

When we did manage to spring the trap a great ball by Bellerin found Aubameyang who then squandered one of the best chances of the game. On the back of his hat-trick form we should have expected better from our striker and it was a chance to be rewarded for that dominance.

As a side note it’s an unfortunate situation for a player that has contributed as much as Aubameyang, but by this time next week we could be lamenting consecutive seasons of him missing huge chances that have ultimately stopped our progress in Europe. When you add in his miss against Brighton in May 2019, which was part of the slide that cost Unai Emery his job, the difference between having Champions League football and not having it could be set alongside his ‘Sliding Doors’ moments. Let’s hope two moments doesn’t become three next week.

The trio in behind Auba, of Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard once again looked lively. The latter with some incredibly neat passing. Saka once again took the plaudits for an all round ‘man of the match’ performance that included our away goal. There’s not much more we can say about him in terms of praise, but it’s time to say that he needs protection as he starts to become targeted by the opposition. A painful compliment.

It’s quite possible that Arteta had assessed the strength of the opposition correctly and didn’t want to use his fringe players. I can certainly understand that and don’t disagree even after the event. I think I would have liked to see more of Pepe later in the game as he is now reaching a level of desperation that is impacting on the other players around him. Last night he tried to do far too much in his short amount of time on the pitch, including getting in the way of his teammates and popping up in strange positions. He’s keen to do well and impress the boss, but maybe needs to go back to basics when he does get a chance?

That chance might be against Manchester City in our next game on Sunday. Arteta has had no luck in the way the fixtures have fallen. Playing two of the top three teams off the back of both Benfica games. While he’s right to prioritise the bigger chance via the Europa League, he can’t afford a heavy defeat at the weekend which would knock confidence throughout the squad. The 1-1 draw last night was by no means a disaster in a game we could have comfortably won, but this is such a big club it’s always about the next game…

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