5 talking points as wasteful Arsenal left ruing missed chances in Benfica draw

Arsenal were left ruing a host of squandered chances as they battled to a disappointing draw with Benfica at the Stadio Olimpico.

Despite dominating for much of the match the Gunners fell behind when Emile Smith Rowe’s unfortunate handball gave Pizzi the chance to score from the penalty spot.

Arsenal were quickly back level though as they went down the other end almost immediately to equalise as Bukayo Saka turned in Cedric’s cross.

But they couldn’t add to their tally as, after scoring a treble at the weekend, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang instead racked up a hat-trick of misses to leave the tie tightly poised.

Here are the talking points from Rome.

1. Continuity is key

Mikel Arteta selected Arsenal's first unchanged line-up since 2018
Mikel Arteta selected Arsenal’s first unchanged line-up since 2018

Mikel Arteta is clearly keen to avoid another upset in the last-32 as he named an unchanged line-up for the first time in his Arsenal tenure.

All 11 players who started in the impressive win over Leeds at the weekend were included from the off against Benfica.

Not since September 2018 has that happened for Arsenal – which was Unai Emery’s fifth game in charge against Newcastle.

Arteta admitted this fortnight was a crucial period for the club and he was taking no chances with his selection.

Even the likes of Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette had to make do with a place among the substitutes on a night where they might have expected to play.

It’s a stark shift from Arsenal’s constant rotation in the group stage, and various fringe men didn’t even make the squad here, which shows Arteta now means business in this competition.

2. Sitter

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reacts after missing a gilt-edged chance
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reacts after missing a gilt-edged chance

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have scored a ruthless hat-trick on Sunday, but he must have left his shooting boots back in North London.

The Arsenal captain was given his first sight of goal just 18 minutes in – and what a chance it was.

Dani Ceballos released Hector Bellerin down the right flank with a superb pass.

The full-back had broke beyond Benfica’s back line with two players up in support, before putting the ball on a plate for Aubameyang with a squared pass right across the face of goal.

Aubameyang had the whole goal at his mercy and only the keeper to beat from about 10 yards out, but spurned his left-footed shot wide.

It was a glaring miss and not his only one, as two more chances went begging in the second half.

He’ll be hoping it doesn’t cost them.

3. Odegaard the Real deal

Martin Odegaard put in a fine display for Arsenal in the No.10 role
Martin Odegaard put in a fine display for Arsenal in the No.10 role

Arsenal have got a player here.

At least, they do when they use him, and until they lose him.

On a few frustrating occasions, loanee Martin Odegaard was in acres of space, but his teammates just didn’t pick him out, which was a shame, as when he got the ball he looked the real deal.

Midway through the first half he disguised a superb driven pass straight through Benfica’s defence skimming it beautifully along the turf into the path of Saka.

Then shortly before the break he produced two moments of magic – first a clever backheel into David Luiz before receiving the return pass and gliding past a defender.

The only criticism you could give him is for not taking the shot on himself as he tried to find Ceballos, though the offside flag against Luiz largely absolved him of any finger pointing.

But Odegaard did soon make his telling contribution as Arsenal began to find him, threading a cute pass expertly into Cedric’s path to set up Saka’s goal.

It was an effortlessly classy display. No wonder Real Madrid want him back.

4. Sometimes less is more

Dani Ceballos plays a pass under pressure from Benfica's goal scorer Pizzi
Dani Ceballos plays a pass under pressure from Benfica’s goal scorer Pizzi

Arsenal were in control of much of the match, passing freely between themselves, but couldn’t make it count enough.

Too many times they overcomplicated things by playing an extra pass or taking an unnecessary touch, when going more direct would have been easier and more effectual.

When they did look for that killer ball earlier, it paid off, but they needed more of it.

Once Odegaard got on the ball more there was a significant improvement, and then it was only their finishing that let them down, as Aubameyang missed big chances and Saka flashed a shot wide.

In truth, Arsenal should have come away from the clash victorious and with a couple more away goals to show for their efforts.

Instead, the tie is now finely balanced for the second leg, and still anyone’s game.

5. Arteta’s conundrum

Arsenal lost a little spark with Emile Smith Rowe pushed out to the left
Arsenal lost a little spark with Emile Smith Rowe pushed out to the left

The problem with having two creative playmakers is where you can fit them both.

Odegaard and Smith Rowe are very different players with different qualities, with the former a more controlled pass-picker and the latter a bundle of tricky energy.

And as good as Odegaard was, shunting Smith Rowe out to the left-wing took away some of that energy Arsenal could have done with through the middle.

He worked his socks off and put in a decent performance on the wing, but you can’t help but think he might have been more effectual further in-field.

It’s where he’s produced his best form this season, and perhaps now leaves Arteta with a little puzzle to solve.

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