Much of the pre-match talk going into Arsenal’s Europa League tie against Benfica centred around Martin Odegaard.
A Norweigan journalist asked Gunners boss Mikel Arteta and defender Cedric Soares about the impact Odegaard has had on the squad so far, what his character is like and how good he can become.
The answers were what you’d expect from a media trained manager and player, but Odegaard showed on Thursday night exactly what qualities he brings to the Arsenal team and why he will play a key part in the latter stages of the season.
“Well, he’s got the potential [to be one of the best]. I followed him very closely when he was at Real Sociedad and he was really impressive over there for long periods,” said Arteta ahead of the match at Stadio Di Olimpico.
Arteta admitted that he had followed Odegaard closely at Real Sociedad and certainly liked what he saw. He was excellent against Benfica and constantly probed the final third, creating chances for his team-mates whenever he was on the ball.
Odegaard’s 92 per cent pass accuracy rate exemplified his proficiency in attack, while the three key passes he made proved that he is more than capable of filling the boots of former assist king Mesut Ozil.
“He had a really successful season over there [at Sociedad] and that’s one of the reasons why I was so convinced that he’s a player for us. He’s a player that I really like and, as you say, still has huge potential to become even better.”
Benfica’s ordinary performance was more frustrating when you consider Arsenal blew gilt-edged opportunities to win the game. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looked tired and struggled to impact the game, but Bukayo Saka once again turned up to score a crucial equaliser.
Arsenal will be desperate to ensure they finish their chances in the second leg when they head to Athens on Thursday. There is a risk of going out on away goals which would be hugely disappointing after blowing the chance to win tonight.
However, there are positives. Chances are being created, the team are looking more fluid and the return of Kieran Tierney in the second half will be more than welcomed ahead of the Premier League match against Manchester City on Sunday.