‘Special qualities’: Mikel Arteta on picking Willian over Martinelli or Pepe

Benfica v Arsenal UEFA Europa League Willian of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League match at Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus. Copyright: Yannis Halas
Benfica v Arsenal UEFA Europa League Willian of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League match at Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus. Copyright: Yannis Halas

Looking back on Arsenal’s win over Benfica, Mikel Arteta has explained why he brought on Willian over Nicolas Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli.

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 18: Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal looks on ahead of the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between SL Benfica and Arsenal FC at Stadio Olimpico on February 18, 2021 in Rome, Italy. SL Benfica face Arsenal FC at a neutral venue in Rome behind closed doors after Portugal imposed a ban on travellers arriving from the UK in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 variants. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY: Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal looks on ahead of the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between SL Benfica and Arsenal FC at Stadio Olimpico on February 18, 2021. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

In Arsenal’s dramatic late win over Benfica, Mikel Arteta brought Willian on for Emile Smith Rowe with half an hour remaining. The Gunners had just fallen behind, and they need two goals to avoid exiting the competition.

Many of the fans were frustrated, calling for Nicolas Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli to come on instead. Yet Willian ended up assisting the equaliser, and he generally put in a much more positive display than many of his other recent performances.

After the game, Arteta explained why he picked Willian over Pepe and Martinelli.

“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,” Arteta explained.

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

It’s a valid point. For all their quality, Pepe and Martinelli need space to run into, if they are to perform at their best on the wings. Willian has rarely shown his best form at Arsenal, but he’s better at operating in those tighter areas when he is performing.

Not every substitution is about bringing the best player on. Sometimes you have to pick the right man for the specific job you need doing, even if it means leaving someone more talented out.

Given Arsenal turned the game around and got the win, this was clearly an example of one of those cases.