The Gunners duo had to settle for spots on the bench in what was a must-win Europa League tie with Benfica.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta assured his reasons for not playing Nicolas Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli in Thursday’s Europa League match against Benfica were purely tactical.
The pair remained benched during Arsenal’s 3-2 second-leg win in Greece, which sealed the club passage into the last-16 with a 4-3 aggregate triumph over their Portuguese opponents.
As per regulations for European competitions, Arteta was allowed to make five substitutions in the game. Alexandre Lacazette, Thomas Partey, Calum Chambers, Mohamed Elneny, and Willian all came off the bench.
Willian, in fact, got the nod over Pepe and Martinelli to replace Emile Smith Rowe on the left side of midfield due to his ability to operate better in tighter spaces.
“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,” said Arteta on his decision to leave Pepe and Martinelli out in his post-match conference in Greece.
“You need people to unlock that, with special qualities in tight spaces to create movement, and I think Willian was really helpful tonight.”
Willian took only four minutes to assist Kieran Tierney’s equalizer after coming on in the 63rd-minute, prompting Arteta to brand him as Arsenal’s game-changer.