Mikel Arteta explains decision to snub Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli against Benfica

Mikel Arteta masterminded Arsenal's narrow win over Benfica in the Europa League
Mikel Arteta masterminded Arsenal’s narrow win over Benfica in the Europa League (Picture: Getty)

Mikel Arteta revealed his decision to keep Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe on the bench with his side staring Europa League elimination in the face was purely for tactical reasons.

The Gunners appeared be heading for an ignominious exit when Benfica’s Rafa pounced on an error from Dani Ceballos to put the Portuguese side 3-2 ahead on aggregate just past the hour mark.

With his side requiring two goals to qualify, Arteta threw on summer signing Willian, despite his majorly underwhelming form since his move from Chelsea, and a predominantly defensive midfielder in the shape of Thomas Partey.

Record signing Pepe, who has impressed in Europe this season, and prodigious young forward Martinelli, however, remained on the sidelines and it wasn’t until the 78th minute that Arteta made another attacking change, adding Alexandre Lacazette to the fray.

The Arsenal manager was ultimately vindicated when captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang headed home Bukayo Saka’s devilish cross with three minutes remaining to send his side through to the last 16 and compensate for the chances he missed in the first leg a week ago.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's late goal helped Arsenal sneak past Benfica and into the last 16 of the Europa League
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late goal helped Arsenal sneak past Benfica and into the last 16 of the Europa League (Picture: Getty)

After the victory, however, Arteta was asked to justify the changes he made while his side were trailing and the Arsenal manager explained: ‘Because there wasn’t much space to run in behind.

‘It was a really tight two lines, 4-4-1-1, or 5-3-2 at times, they were a really, really low block, not much space to run apart from when they set the line around the 18-yard box.

‘You need people to unlock that, with special qualities in tight spaces to create movement and I think Willi was really helpful tonight.’

On Willian’s impact on the match, he added: ‘Willian specifically, I think he changed the game.

‘He gave us much more composure in moments, produced some creativity, produced the goal for Kieran and we need everybody on board.’

MORE : Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang calls out Jamie Redknapp after match-winning brace for Arsenal against Benfica

MORE : ‘We all know’ – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang names Bukayo Saka Arsenal’s MOTM vs Benfica

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