Match Statistics: Villarreal 2-1 Arsenal
Trying something new isn’t a bad thing, but maybe the semi-final of a European competition isn’t the best time to do it – especially when your season is on the line.
Mikel Arteta has already shown that he is not the type of manager who is afraid to think outside the box, but this time his bet has turned on her in a calamitous way.
Arsenal now have everything to do in their Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal after a disappointing 2-1 loss in the first leg away from home.
Considering they entered this game 10th in the Premier League and their chances of qualifying for Europe next season are almost over with domestic issues, Arteta knew his side had no room. for the error in Spain.
Still, he chose to roll the dice, surprising everyone by starting without a recognized striker and using 20-year-old playmaker Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine.
It was something straight out of Pep Guardiola’s playbook, but while it may have worked for Arteta’s mentor against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, it failed miserably for the boss of ‘Arsenal at El Madrigal.
“This is how we prepared for the game,” Arteta said afterwards. “It’s the decision I made, thinking it was the best way to play.
“But the game was conditioned after four minutes. So it’s hard to assess whether that would work or not. The conceding the stunt also changed that and after that we have to tackle it. a different way. “
The key to playing with a false nine is to have movement all around that player to pull defenders out of position and make sure there is still plenty of body in and around the box.
But that just didn’t happen for Arsenal and Villarreal’s defense will rarely have had an easier night than they did until Gabriel Martinelli was introduced just past the hour mark.
At that point, Arsenal were already 2-0 behind and were staring defeat in the face, with Dani Ceballos having been sent off for picking up two yellow cards.
But Martinelli’s introduction gave Arsenal more of a focal point to spearhead their attack and the visitors at least managed to save a draw goal and give themselves something to play in the second leg. next week at the Emirates Stadium.
That lifeline came from the penalty spot, with Nicolas Pepe scoring his sixth Europa League goal of the season after Bukayo Saka tripped into the box.
For Arteta, the goal would have been a huge relief considering how the game has gone up to this point.
The Arsenal manager had said in the preparation that this is the type of games players live for, but for a man his side endured a shocking first half.
Arteta again chose to start with Granit Xhaka at left-back and in just five minutes the Switzerland international had been exposed by Samuel Chukwueze, allowing Manu Trigueros to return the opener.
And things got worse just before the half hour mark when Raul Albiol was left all alone from a corner to retake the volley from close range and double the home side’s lead.
At that point, it felt like Arteta needed to turn things around at the break as his game plan clearly wasn’t working. But the Spaniard decided to stick to his guns and kept things the same at the start of the second half, even though Ceballos had already been booked and looked almost certain to be sent off.
The midfielder had been late all night and it was no surprise when he was finally sacked in the 57th minute when he was booked again for another late foul.
Arteta said after the game that he was on the verge of withdrawing the loan from Real Madrid, but the truth is he never should have come out for the second half in the first place.
“Obviously we talked at half-time that we have to be very careful,” said the manager. “There was already a tackle very early and I was going to take it off and by the time Gabi [Martinelli] was ready to come, that action happened and he was out. “
With his 10-man squad and the game slipping away, Arteta finally made a change when he brought in Martinelli. And it was no surprise to see Arsenal improve following the Brazilian’s introduction.
They suddenly had a bit of a threat about them when they got the ball, when they were 10 men away. And when Saka passed into the zone, Pepe remained calm to score a penalty 17 minutes from time to keep the tie alive.
Arsenal could even have returned to London on a level playing field, but Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli produced a smart save to turn down Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had been billed as a late replacement.
Make no mistake, however, it was a huge loss for Arteta.
He tried to be too smart and it backfired. Luckily for him, his team managed to give themselves a lifeline ahead of the second leg.
I hope Aubameyang will be back in great shape by then and Alexandre Lacazette could also be available.
That should make Arsenal more of a threat and the false nine-person experience we have seen in Spain will not be something we see reproduced again.