MARTIN KEOWN: Mikel Arteta is lucky to still have a job following his tactics during Arsenal’s defeat to Villarreal … he got a second chance and must take it
- Arsenal were beaten 2-1 in their first leg in the semi-final of the Europa League in Villarreal
- Mikel Arteta gambled on Thursday evening by starting without a recognized striker
- Arteta’s Arsenal got a second chance through Nicolas Pepe’s away goal
- The boss of The Gunners has the last laugh at predecessor Unai Emery
- Emery, meanwhile, showed signs of his trusted and usual caution this week
Mikel Arteta’s tactics and decision-making on Thursday should have crashed Arsenal from Europe and possibly ended his managerial career at the club.
Remarkably, however, and thanks to that late penalty won by Bukayo Saka, Arsenal are still very much in this draw against Villarreal.
Arteta gets the rare good of time and now he takes advantage of an even rarer event: a second chance. And this is one he really should take.
Mikel Arteta took a very risky gamble in Arsenal’s first leg defeat to Villarreal
Arteta chose on Thursday not to draft a recognized striker in the 2-1 defeat against the men of Unai Emery
Arteta experimented on Thursday with a false nine, without a recognized striker. Playing with that new formation for the first time in the biggest game of the season was a big demand from the players and a huge gamble. It didn’t pay off.
The best managers I worked with kept it simple in the big games, with clear messages and proven systems that the players knew.
One problem Arteta faces is that he has played a number of different systems in his tenure at the club and doesn’t seem to know his best XI.
Another important point, which may emerge against Newcastle tomorrow, is left back. Granit Xhaka doesn’t deserve to be blamed. I feel for him. He is a midfielder who is told by his manager to play left in Kieran Tierney’s absence.
Granit Xhaka wrestled on Thursday in Spain against pacy Samuel Chukwueze
Xhaka played well there against Sheffield United and Arsenal held their first out for 13 games. But he has since been exposed to higher quality opponents such as Richarlison for Everton and Samuel Chukwueze for Villarreal. He could now take on Newcastle’s form Allan Saint-Maximin.
Let’s not even get into how a club like Arsenal, whose owners wanted them in the closed European Super League, is without a backup left back.
Villarreal boss Unai Emery on Thursday identified Xhaka as a left back and Dani Ceballos on the left side of a midfield two as the vulnerable area on Arteta’s side. Emery showed his experience against a team he knew well, while Arteta showed his inexperience.
Ex-Arsenal boss Emery showed his experience, while Arteta showed a lack of experience
Trailing 2-0, I feared the worst. But Arsenal actually looked more effective with 10 men after Ceballos’ second yellow card and that away goal, scored by Nicolas Pepe, was huge.
Emery’s caution, which plagued him at Arsenal, came back to haunt him and got his old club back into the game.
All is not lost for Arsenal, but the importance of Arteta making the right decisions in the coming week cannot be underestimated. The pieces of the puzzle are there, but Arteta has to put them together properly. It starts tomorrow in Newcastle.
Arsenal received a boost from the away goal of Nicolas Pepe from the penalty spot on Thursday
He’s got Tierney, David Luiz, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all on the verge of fitness. He has to decide who gets minutes against Newcastle so he can take a closer look, and who to save purely for Villarreal.
When Tierney is fit, he walks into the team for that all-or-nothing second leg. If not, Saka will have to play as a left back, a position where he previously excelled for club and country.
If Arteta stays at 4-2-3-1, Xhaka can then return to midfield alongside Thomas Partey, where he has improved greatly this season.
Arteta could welcome left back Kieran Tierney next week, who traveled to Spain
If Arteta wants to experiment against Newcastle, he could try 4-3-3, with Emile Smith Rowe, Partey and Saka in midfield three and Pepe, Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli in the top three. If the game is won early, take out the key figures for Villarreal.
Arsenal’s inconsistency this season is perhaps best summed up by their performance in the knockout stages of the Europa League, with their two-legged band consistently consisting of one good performance and one bad.
With that in mind, while Arteta was outwitted by his predecessor on Thursday, he can still have the last laugh.