Three Is The Magic Number: Transitioning from Manchester City to Benfica at the midweek
By Mac Johnson
This weekend went better than I expected, in all honesty. We lost to the best team in Europe at the moment—I’m panicking about tomorrow’s match against my favorite Bundesliga side, Borrusia Monchengladbach—and by a rather flattering 1-0 scoreline. And as has been the case time and time again these past few weeks, we deserved more than we got. Per James Benge, Pep Guardiola admitted in his post-match presser that “after the first 15-20 minutes, Arsenal were better than us.” We pressed exceedingly well, created numerous chances down the left flank, and managed to fluster the indomitable Citizens on one or two occasions. That’s not a rhetoric you’d expect to revolve around a side that’s lost three from four in the league. And yet. Looking ahead to our tie against Benfica this Thursday, there are positives, negatives, and tactical lessons to take from this City game, and I’ll discuss all three within this piece, along with some must-start players, again in sets of three. It is, after all, the magic number. Cracking my knuckles, let’s get down to business. Three things we must change against Benfica, if we hope to win.
1. Individual Errors
Individual errors, yet again, were our downfall against CIty. Anybody with a working pair of eyes has seen Arsenal players produce moments of utter buffoonery over the past month, and those same eyes will probably have noticed CIty’s penchant for striking early and often, then controlling the game. Our best chance for a result was to avoid that trap. We didn’t. A five-match rusty Kieran Tierney didn’t close Riyad Mahrez sixty seconds in, and Hector Bellerin let Sterling drift into the six yard box without so much as a “heads-up” to Rob Holding, who in turn didn’t jump for an easy header, and that was all she wrote. They also cost us any chance of winning against Villa, and Wolves, and arguably against Benfica last time out. Whatever Arteta has to tell these players to get it through their heads, concentration will be key. Like last time out, Arsenal will likely dominate possession, with Benfica using their physical forwards, and combination of electric speed and technical ability out wide, to generate opportunities on the counter, much like they did last time. We need to be entirely locked in, or we likely won’t advance past this stage.
2. Ball-Retention by the three attacking midfielders
All three of our attacking midfielders—Saka, Pepe, and Ødegaard—struggled to retain the ball against CIty. Our starboy was the brightest out of the three, but was sloppy in possession rather uncharacteristically, and although he created a few excellent chances, he lacked the ball security to establish any trends. Pepe ran his butt off all game, and looked to link up with just about everyone, but consistently undersold passes, and overran his teammates. And Ødegaard was starved of service, certainly, but his passes would often end up 5 or ten feet short of where they needed to be. That needs to change against Benfica. Regardless of who starts, those three attackers will make the difference between scoring and not. They contain the creative impetus of this side, and their movement and touch will have to be inch-perfect. They’ve shown us they can do that in the past in fits and spurts, but if we want to make a statement, we have to do it consistently as well. Mikel Arteta’s recent attacking training has prioritized layoffs and passes around the corner, using finesse rather than power to fool defenders and pull apart teams internally. It’s those little movements that resoundingly failed against City, and cannot be allowed to fail in Athens. Especially as Benfica will look to play a lower block, and Arsenal will look to draw them out of their shell, it’s those little moments that will decide the trends of our attacking play.
3. Control the beginning and end of every half This point can honestly be taken for the season on the whole, but it’s increasingly important for this Arsenal team. In four of our last six matches, in the league, Arsenal have conceded within five minutes of a kickoff, whether to start the match or the second half. We need to focus on coming out of the blocks stronger. Furthermore, as of this past match week, Arsenal have lost 8 league games by one-goal deficits, the second-most of any team in the league. Without fans in the stadium, matches tend to form a pattern and stick to it. In the case of the Gunners, conceding early has been our achilles heel, and often the knockout blow that. When we can’t build a head of steam because we’re pegged back early, we lose. The only reliable tool to combat that has been rapid response—in games where we have gone down and come back to get a points result, we have scored a goal within ten minutes of conceding, every time—but that’s never a guarantee. We have to set a tone in this match, dominate from the off. And a quick start is key to that. As for the end of halves, this Arsenal team don’t always look convincing as games wear on. What will most likely happen is that Mikel Arteta will make substitutions, and we will lose cohesion. We saw it against Leeds, where, despite a 4-2 win, we looked increasingly desperate as the second half progressed. We simply don’t have enough consistent quality off the bench, except for Willian, who is consistently useless. And if this game does end in a draw and go to extra time, nothing could be more crucial than ending the full 90 minutes on a high, again setting the tone for what will likely be a frenetic and high-octane half-hour. We can’t just control the ball. We must control the game.
Three things we must retain against Benfica, to better overpower the Portuguese outfit
1. Risk-taking Earlier this season, one of my biggest complaints about Arsenal was that they played like Risk-Free FC. We were great at keeping the ball, and that was about it. There was no energy, no spark. That’s all changed now, as our youthful attack has brought some energy and pep back to an ailing side. But the biggest difference is that Ødegaard, Saka, Pepe, and Smith Rowe aren’t afraid to take risks, to improvise, and don’t get discouraged when they don’t fully pan out. Even when we lose, we look like a competent side, if not the better team, because we have elements of unpredictability that make us fun to watch and difficult to play. As I mentioned earlier, a majority of the chances we took against City didn’t pay off, and that’s okay. They’re an inexorable, smothering team to play against, who are generally talented and athletic enough to handle most of the tricks we throw their way. To our credit, we created chances, disrupted their rhythm, and actually looked to put them off at times. Since they started their winning streak, no other team has done that. I’m not exaggerating. We have to continue taking those risks, creating, innovating. And to his credit, Mikel Arteta’s system seems to be doing just that, regardless of results. But we can’t falter for a second. 2. Line-breaking verticality
Another tactical element that Arteta favors are long, vertical passes through the lines. He coaches his players to cycle the ball deep, until they can find one of the wide forwards with a long, slide-rule pass. That winger will lay it off to a midfielder or No. 10, who then has the full field to survey. In all likelihood, the next pass will either find a striker or the opposite winger, who will then lay it off to a wingback or central midfielder. This staggering of the ball pulls apart defenders and crates gaps, allowing players like Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos to get the space they need to pick out a final ball, or set up an attack. Unlike our passing combinations earlier this year, these movements are exceedingly hard to predict, as we have a number of players who are very skilled with their back to a defender, whether holding up the ball or spinning on the half-turn. Again, unpredictability is key, and the best way to avoid predictability is to play out of your opponent’s hands. Regardless of the phase of play, vertical passes are key to our swift, uncompromising attacks that have plastered themselves on highlight reels across the internet. When we score, the goal is more often than not a sight to behold. And maintaining that flair and skill can and should become a key component of this team’s makeup. Vertical passing was the only tool that really allowed us to break down City’s press, and it was our best weapon against Benfica last Thursday in Rome. We’d be fools to eschew it in Athens.
3. Granit Xhaka
Weird to put a player on this list when I have a “must start” list farther down, but Xhaka was in scintillating form against City. I don’t care, sorry not sorry. He’s been the lynchpin of our success in possession, and his marshaling off of the ball kept our press firing. Rarely caught out of position in recent games, Xhaka is stepping back into the captain conversation, and while I think his time at the Emirates may be limited, we should use him while we can. Besides being our best passer, the Swiss international did an excellent job of helping Arsenal to wrestle control back from City, especially towards the back-end of the first half. His distribution was nearly faultless, and he brought back a little bit of the defensive steel we expected from him all those years ago, biting into a few key tackles along the way, a skill he seems to be relearning. And again, Benfica will play a low block. We know how they operate. Whether or not David Luiz starts, Xhaka’s range of distribution will always have the potential to send the Portuguese giants into disarray. He’s a key cog in Arteta’s plans, and is a must-start as far as I’m concerned. He showed no signs of fatigue in London this Sunday, and he must be at his brassy best against Benfica.
Three key tactical lessons we must learn if moving on is our goal
1. Pass the ball quickly, but safely, from inside to out
This, arguably, was our biggest problem against City. Most of the chances we created came from wide areas, and yet we insisted on focusing our buildup down the center. When it worked, it was lovely, but more often than not, it was a gift of the ball directly back to the sky blue outfit—or, I guess paisley in this case. Seriously, who thought those kits were a good idea? Anyway, I digress. And oftentimes, we lost possession playing the ball from inside-out, with numerous passes failing to find the feet of Saka or Pepe, for one of two reasons. First, the ball wasn’t played quickly enough. Or second, the pass was played into double or triple pressure. Hector Bellerin and Ødegaard were the two main culprits of this fallacy, with the former misplaying dozens of passes, and the latter underweighting his, stalling moves instantly. And as important as it was against City, it will be doubly so against Benfica. Unlike the Citizens, Benfica will look to trap us centrally, as they did last time out to great effect. They took advantage of the long and very narrow pitch to funnel us into the middle, and then launch a counter when we did cede possession. They’re an exceedingly physical team, and if they can keep us from using the flanks on a much wider Athens pitch, we’ll have no real hope of breaking them down, bar a moment of individual mastery.
2. Ball retention is more important than crossing if we’re pressing high This is a small point, but a crucial one. We will look to exploit the wide areas, this much is certain, but what we do from those wide areas will make or break our game. As we learned earlier this season, lumping useless crosses into the box doesn’t do much for us, but the temptation will certainly abound against Benfica. The best opportunities generated by the Lisbon-based outfit came through the centre, when we overextended to the wings, allowing their central strikers to poach clearances and loose their wingers up the flanks, into the spaces vacated by Cedric, KT, and Bellerin. Considering our lack of aerial mastery and dominance, an aimless cross will most often by synonymous with a gift for Benfica, and we don’t want that. Retain possession, cycle the ball, commit a man, draw the opponent out until you have an opportunity. We’ll be pressing the ball high up, and it’s better to avoid exposing our lack of pace than to waste a cross. They can be a useful tool, but we won’t win on the back of successful crosses. We never have done.
3. Close. Down. Everything.
This one’s pretty obvious, but we cannot let them out of their own half. In every game we dominate—think Southampton, Leeds, and West Brom—we suffocated their build-up play, and forced them into mistakes. Why create your own opportunities when you can force your opponent to do it for you, and demoralize them to boot? And that’s just in the attacking sense. Remember that this tie in Athens is our home leg, and if we concede more than one goal, we’ll have a mountain to climb. Stepping out to challenge for crosses and through balls has never been a strong suit of this Arsenal team, but we need to step it up in that regard. Furthermore, we cannot sit back and be passive in this encounter. Aggression and purpose will determine our success against a combative Benfica, and we must step up to the challenge. Close down every ball, then fight for the seconds, even thirds. I’m not encouraging rash behavior—who would—but I want to see this Arsenal team really raise their fists and fight.
Three players who must start against Benfica
1. Alexandre Lacazette I make this case for two reasons, neither of which involved bigging up AFCMax9, although that is a bonus. First, Arteta has cast him by the wayside recently, and I’m not the biggest fan. He was in a rich vein of form, clearly flowing with confidence, and he’s barely played a minute since Auba returned from taking care of his mother. As much as I love seeing the Gabon international back on the pitch, he doesn’t bring as much to this tie as you might think. Lacazette, first and foremost, is a significantly more clinical finisher. Auba has a bad habit of relying on a saturation of chances, and on the off-chance that we struggle to create on Thursday, as we did on Sunday, he’s not the man you want up front. Furthermore, I trust Lacazette’s feet in tight spaces far more. He’s great with his back to goal, and specializes in the little flicks and tricks that make him such an effective false-9 in the first two stages of play, and that should endear him to Arteta against a stiff and uncompromising Benfica side. He was sorely missed against City, and Auba was next to useless. Give the man a chance. 2. Emile Smith Rowe
Another player who we missed against City, for one primary reason. Ødegaard is a wonderful player, but he almost has too much finesse. I certainly trust the Norwegian in tight spaces, and he’s a consummate creator, but Smith Rowe brings two of the tactical pieces I talked about earlier to the able. For starters, he’s one of our most direct players, and specializes in the exact type of rapid, yet accurate passing that has been so instrumental in our success recently. You don’t really realize how much you miss him and until he’s gone, but as he’s been rested during the weekend, I’m hoping he starts. Especially given the fact that Saka desperately needs a rest as well. But more than that, his energetic pressing will be key to leading the line against Benfica. Ødegaard is no slouch, but he doesn’t zip around the way Emile does. Whether he features on one of the wings, or preferably through the center, Smith Rowe will find a way to make himself useful, regardless of what phase of play, or the state of the game. He’s quickly becoming a must-start. 3. Cedric Soares Alright last point, then I’ll shut up. If you’ve made it this far, I’m sincerely impressed, and slightly concerned. Get a life, you lot. This one is going to seem odd to most of you, and that’s totally fair. But I think Cedric should start at right-back, over Hector Bellerin, in this tie. Here’s why. First off, his defensive acumen is sizeable, but he’s a natural at link-up play, and loves to gallivant up and down the touchline. Assuming we either see Saka or Pepe at right-wing, that could be key. Bellerin looked leggy and sloppy against City, and while we do have to point out the quality of the opponent, it’s also important to note Cedric’s success in the Europa League thus far. He’s been a willing and productive servant to the club thus far, and has actually put in a number of all-star performances in this particular competition. Rest Hector, allow him to gather himself—we all know what an unconfident Bellerin can do to our play—and give Cedric a chance. He’ll never be a perfect player, but he’s not quite the loser Alfie makes him out to be. I think it’s exactly this sort of tie where his particular skills—stamina and vertical runs in particular—could come to the fore. He also doesn’t match Bellerin’s habit of tucking inside that can really expose us on the counter, which is a useful tool to have in reserve. Well that’s it from me. I hope you all enjoyed! Leave a like, give it a share, and listen to the Arsenal Cannon Podcast Extravaganza Wondershow, out today! Much love from the good ol' US of A, signing off.