The most positive thing to come from what we witnessed last night was that we are still, somehow, in this tie. That it had to come from a penalty which was, let’s face it ‘generous’ at best, is a real cause for concern and in a semi final of a European competition you really do need your team to step up and take charge if you want to have a hope of progressing.
Unai Emery’s Villareal lined up as we expected and the man himself said the Arsenal line up was more of less as he expected, which is interesting, because I don’t think any of us were expecting to see the line up Mikel went with. OK the back five was what we thought with Leno in goal, Chambers at right back, Holding, Mari then Xhaka at full back. And of course Ceballos (oh, i’ll come to him alright) and Partey in midfield. But I didn’t think we’d opt for a ‘false nine’ in the first leg of an all important Europa League semi final against a team who are certainly no mugs. The last time we experimented like that was when Willian stunk out the Etihad towards the beginning of this season, so the fact we hadn’t seen it since then and then Arteta decided to bust it out was the first alarm bell for me on his decision making as a manager last night. Why no Martinelli? If you think Nketiah had a poor game against Everton – which I did – then give Martinelli a shot and once again when he came on for Odegaard I thought he looked sharp and hungry. But instead we tried something random and different.
The experiment never really got the chance to get going though. Villareal pressed us very high – something Emery never managed to maintain after his first month at Arsenal – and they were also gifted a goal within the first five minutes of the game. You knew it, Arteta knew it, Villareal and Unai Emery knew it; Xhaka as a make shift left back HAS to be the target. It’s not Xhaka’s fault, he is in there due to the lack of options, but the very fact we didn’t get another left back in during January could in itself be seen as another example of Edu and Arteta taking a gamble that has shown to have backfired.
Let me be clear on this though; I don’t blame Xhaka and I don’t think there was too much more he could do. He isn’t going to be able to press up high to a rapid player like Chukwueze and so he has to try to block his path. Then when the player gets in to the box it’s difficult to make a foul. But this is where I got pretty angry with Ceballos for the first time last night, because in the replay I watched him amble back in to position, then show the most half-hearted attempt at blocking Chukwueze that you’ve ever seen. It was to be the first of a number of shocking situations the Spaniard would get in all night.
Some people have pointed to a few early half-decent through balls that didn’t quite come off, but what I saw was a nice idea that was poorly executed, either becuase they were under or over-hit. Then I saw for the second goal they scored a sloppy touch from Ceballos and ok, he wasn’t at fault for the corner and unmarked Abiol tapping at the back post – that was poor from Holding not to win the header then poorer from Partey not to track the ageing defender – but he still had his part to play in the build up. Ceballos was also jogged past on a number of occasions throughout that first half and because Partey wasn’t having the best of games, we saw just how anonymous Dani ’12 touches’ Ceballos is when he doesn’t have a player alongside him playing well.
Then we come to the red card in the second half and on this I think we’re looking at 50% Ceballos and 50% Arteta in terms of apportioning blame. That’s because after his first half display Ceballos should have never come out. In the Europa League we have five subs and that means you can afford to make a change or two at halftime if things aren’t working tactically or if a player is having a mare. That was when Arteta should have hooked Ceballos and if he had done whoever would have replaced him would have at least not been on a yellow to receive a second yellow. But the stupidity of Ceballos leaving his foot dangling when already on a yellow was clear. It was a key moment in the game and just as we had started to control a bit of possession. And I have to admit that at that stage I thought the whole tie was over and I was wondering how long it would be before so many would turn on Arteta. The performance was lacklustre but the decision making by the manager had got us to this point and that for me is one of the biggest worries.
But we got a lifeline, as soft as it was, and so does Arteta and his weird decisions. It looked very soft and was one of those classic ‘play x stretches his legs out to ensure there is contact’ and there was. And that’s where you have to give a penalty. We’ve seen Jamie Vardy do it for years. This time we were the beneficiaries and Pepe’s cool penalty was one of the few bright spots on the night.
Then five minutes later us going level after Capoue was sent off should have led to a siege on the Villareal goal, but it was only a late Auba chance that we really got and the night finished with us with lots to do. And here’s my worry about that second leg:
- We haven’t been very good at all at home this season
- We aren’t keeping clean sheets
- We look like we’re reverting back to the pre-Christmas Arsenal i.e. not creating chances
It felt like that last night, against Everton, then also against Fulham. In the final third we just looked a little off and my worry is that the return leg will see exactly the same set up as last night i.e. Villareal settling in to a compact unit, then hitting us on the break with pace, because they will have done their homework and will know we struggle with a low block.
So this morning I have relief that the second leg isn’t a dead rubber, I have relief that Villareal didn’t put this game to bed, but I am rapidly losing confidnece that this manager and team can deliver the ultimate aim of a Europa League victory. Especially when you see what United did to Roma last night. It’s almost as if Mikel Arteta overthinks every single game. He spends his entire time in the build up to a team trying to out-tactic and ‘out chess’ and out guess the opposition manager. My hope for the return leg at home is that we at least get some players returning. We need to get minutes in the legs of Tierney, of Auba and Lacazette, of Odegaard as well. Even if it’s just a half at the weekend against Newcastle. That game on Sunday becomes important for fitness only and my hope is that Arteta realises that and acts accordingly.
Catch you all tomorrow.