Well folks, this feels like it could be pretty much it tonight, what it all boils down to and should the worst happen this evening and we sh*t the bed against Unai Emery’s Villareal then the season is essentially finished in all but name. It feels like last chance saloon for Mikel and his charges to salvage something from the flaming embers of a car crash of a season that this has been so far and I don’t know whether or not it is because it is still early and I have a whole day of work ahead of me today to take my mind off the Europa League Semi Final at 8pm this evening, but I don’t feel as nervous as I thought I would.
I should. With the goal advantage Villareal are favourites with most bookies as you’d expect, then when you couple that with our dreadful home form this season (we have also lost and drawn at home in our last two knockout games in this competition and haven’t won at home in five, yes FIVE, matches!), it feels like we still have a bit of a mountain to climb tonight to get to the final. What should also gnaw away at me is the way in which we played in the first leg and whilst the goal we got was perhaps some form of consolation this evening, I am not of the mind that “we can’t play that bad as we did in the first half again”. We absolutely can and have done so plenty of times this season already as we all know.
Then there’s the fact that Villareal haven’t lost a game in a competition in which Unai seems to know how to navigate as if it was a Bayern team sauntering their way to the Bundesliga. Heck, even with us he navigated us all the way to the final and when a guy has the kind of midas touch he has – three wins with Sevilla, six semi finals and only once has he been defeated – which all should add to our apprehension over this evening.
It’s starting to with me already! Three paragraphs ago I wasn’t worried and now I already have butterflies!
So what can help to overcome the fear? Perhaps some team news? Tierney has returned to training, as has Lacazette and I suspect they’ll at least be in the squad tonight. As I said yesterday the Lacazette inclusion doesn’t represent as much of a gamble when you have minutes under Aubameyang’s belt and so I am less worried about the forward line as I am about our back line. Emery will be planning on approaching this game in the same way he did the first leg; he’ll want to catch us cold early and if we are attacked early on that left hand side – regardless of whether it is Xhaka or Tierney there – Chukwueze will want to have a run at either early on to test them.
That is where covering and supporting the full back will be essential tonight. Thankfully we don’t have Ceballos ambling around with 725,000 touches of the ball or not tracking back quickly enough and I suspect it’ll be Xhaka from the start with Elneny and Partey in the middle. Providing Elneny can cover ground and double up with his full back on that left hand side I’d be ok with it.
Then in front of him the temptation may be for Arteta to go Smith-Rowe on the left, Odegaard through the middle, then Saka on the right of our three behind Aubameyang. But I would be looking closely at Pepe here. He managed to get the run on Foyth a few times in the first leg and had a penalty (rightly) turned down after it hit his arm. However he still managed to get in behind and if Emery wants to push his full backs out wide to try to overload the wide spaces, then Pepe has the pace to be able to exploit. Foyth is apparently injured for this evening but I suspect Emery will replace with another aggressive full back so the rules of engagement will remain the same.
On the other flank I’d also be looking at Bellerin and Saka. Bellerin played well against Newcastle and also has a bit more mobility than Chambers, but Chambers also has more mobility than Holding, so I’d be going for Chambers in the middle of the park because if there is a foot race to be had if Villareal hit us on the counter after a transition in play, I’d fancy Chambers up against Moreno more than Holding.
And I do think Emery will play us on the break. Villareal did that expertly in the first half and punished us quite efficiently it has to be said, scoring with their first attempt, then through a corner on the half hour mark, and Emery will know very well how bad we’ve been against low block teams who have pace up front. Villareal have that so I am expecting them to draw us in and catch us on the counter. That is where players who can cover ground are essential and perhaps it is why having Xhaka as a full back might not be the worst thing in the world. Think about it; he isn’t going to overlap his winger, he’s going to stay back, so if we are caught on the counter he’s not going to leave acres of space having traveled high up the pitch. So providing he’s given support and has an Arsenal midfielder to double up with him on that left hand side, i’d be ok with it.
So now we wait. And having finished today’s musings I have now gone from “work will be a distraction” to “how can I work with such a big game at state”. Football, eh?
Catch you all tomorrow with either a post mortem or joyous celebration.