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Arsenal 3 - Benfica 2 match report: survived, barely

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The Gunners left it late, but Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dragged the side through.

Arsenal FC v SL Benfica - UEFA Europa League Round Of 32 Leg Two Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Everyone take like five deep breaths. Somehow, Arsenal managed to pull off what I’d bet most of us thought un-doable and overturn 2-1 down to Benfica with just 30 minutes to go in the match, and their Europa League run headed towards another early exit.

Actually, they didn’t get through “somehow” — it’s easy to pinpoint what carried the day. It was the individual brilliance of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The pair linked up for the first and third goals for Arsenal. When the club needed it most, the best players came through in the clutch.

You expect that from a veteran, club captain, experienced scorer in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Full credit to him. That’s what Arsenal gave him a massive contract in the summer — to score big goals in big games. What’s endlessly impressive is that Bukayo Saka is making us expect the incredible of him, too. It’s unbelievable. He’s 19. And he’s already Arsenal’s best player.

Benfica advancing from the tie would have been massively “unfair” to Arsenal. The Gunners were in control of pretty much the entire 180 minutes over two legs. The Portuguese side scored on a penalty, a worldie of a free kick off a silly foul, and a completely brain-dead mistake. Credit to them for being opportunistic, I guess. But going out against an opponent who went three-for-three on big chances over two matches would have been really harsh.

At the same time, had Arsenal managed to go out today, they would have had nobody but themselves to blame. Dani Ceballos’ foul that conceded the free kick for the goal in the first half today was silly and needless. You just can’t dangle a leg like he did. And the second goal, woof. I have no idea what he was thinking. Was he trying to head it back to Bernd Leno? Did he misjudge the flight and the bounce? Were his teammates communicating with him at all? Whatever actually happened, it was just an awful goal to concede and a gigantic mistake. The type of mistake, really, that we’ve grown accustomed to as Arsenal fans. I’ve seen plays like that so many times that all I can do now is just laugh.

But unlike we’re used to seeing as Arsenal fans, the side battled back. And they did it despite some questionable substitutions from Mikel Arteta. Bringing on Thomas Partey was definitely the right move — he changed the pace of the match with his disruption and progressive passing. But bringing on Willian over Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli was inexcusable. And moving Bukayo Saka to right back to accomodate Alexandre Lacazette was also a head-scratcher.

I think Arsenal won in spite of those moves, not because of them. I remain extremely concerned about Arteta’s in-game management, adjustments, and substitutions. They are not good.

That Willian was involved on the second goal does nothing to justify the substitution, in my mind. For starters, he made a forward run on the move, which he basically hasn’t done all season. You bet on players to be the guy they have been all year, not suddenly change in the heat of the moment. He deserves a bit credit for having the composure to pick out Tierney instead of lumping in a hopeful cross. But there wasn’t anything in particular about the goal that suggested it wouldn’t have come but for Willian’s involvement. So congrats to him for being at least replacement level, I guess.

Arsenal can’t press as aggressively with Willian on the pitch compared to Emile Smith Rowe. And they weren’t able to again today. At 2-2, they could barely win the ball, and I was concerned they wouldn’t even get a chance for the winner.

But they did, and Bukayo Saka’s individual brilliance and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s cool finishing did the trick.

The draw for the Europa League Round of 16 takes place tomorrow morning. Whoever Arsenal draw, they will need to play much, much better to advance. It wasn’t a convincing win, and I’ve still got plenty of concerns going forward. But they did win. That’s much better than losing. And I’m going to enjoy it.