There’s a time and a place for a bit of experimentation. Sometimes it’s borne out of necessity, like when Emile Smith Rowe was thrust into the side against Chelsea on Boxing Day, seemingly out of nowhere, when Arteta’s back was against the wall. Sometimes the opposition demand a different approach and some ingenuity.
The first leg of our Europa League semi final, upon which the fate of our entire season is hinged, is not the place for forcing 20-year-old Smith Rowe into the “false 9” role with no recognised forward. I don’t doubt he has the intelligence to understand what the role entails, I just think there’s a time and a place and this was like turning up to a funeral with an air horn and an itchy trigger finger.
It’s bad enough that this needs pointing out, but it doesn’t stop there because Arteta also continued with Xhaka at left back. Ever since the tie was announced, it’s been “well Xhaka’s obviously not going to be up against Chukwueze”. For some strange reason, I’d assumed this was a bridge too far. Obviously Xhaka is going to be back into midfield, so who’s going to play at left back? Chukwueze would have him for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It took 5 minutes for the inevitable.
For what it’s worth, I don’t blame Xhaka in the slightest. That early in the tie, it would be daft to dive in and expose himself and he actually put in another respectable performance after the early setback. Ceballos was just as culpable, if not more, and his clumsy challenge ended up in a nutmeg so he was in no position to win the second ball. Villareal’s second was thanks to a Ceballos turnover, Arsenal were second-best to both duels in the box and Villareal had a deserved 2-0 lead going into half time, and could even have had a third.
So that’s the pre-match decisions out the way. The only thing I can surmise was running through Arteta’s head at this point is “how can I make things worse?”. This system clearly wasn’t working and half-time is a convenient opportunity to make changes and explain them, drawing a line under the experiment and having 45 minutes to make things right. I thought back to Liverpool’s first leg against Real Madrid, when Naby Keita was brought off after 42 minutes. Something was so badly wrong that Klopp couldn’t even wait 3 minutes; it had to be then and now. In stark contrast, Arsenal stepped out for the second half and continued to suffer in much the same way. I thought that was bad enough, but one minute into the second half starting, we got Arteta’s pièce de résistance.
When Ceballos made that late and high challenge, I already thought he was walking. He was incredibly lucky not to do so, and the referee gave him the “final warning” dressing down. Okay, great – time to get him off so we don’t do any more damage (needless to remind you that Arsenal are 2-0 down at this point). 10 minutes later…
Arteta had this to say and I just don’t buy it: “I was going to take him [Ceballos] off and by the time Gabi was ready to come on, that action happened and he was out.” Some 10 minutes passed between that first challenge and the red card. It’s bad enough that he waited before it was too late, but the irony is this change would have killed two birds with one stone by finally giving us a central outlet. It was a criminal decision and another entry in a growing list of incomprehensible in-game decisions from Arteta. Any of these decisions Arteta made before and during the game are bad enough even in isolation, but laying them all out and trying to make sense of them is something else entirely.
There’s really only one way to summarise this mindset and it’s arrogance. A complete lack of respect to a far more accomplished manager, to the point where thinking he could get away with playing a 20-year-old as a false 9 is bordering on delusional. It’s even more delusional to think that you can simply replicate an even more accomplished manager’s system because you worked under him. I really can’t understand how that plan even came out on top when you have a player like Gabriel Martinelli available. Everyone knows about Arsenal’s injury problems in this position and I’m not suggesting for one second that he was wrong not to take the popular vote but it also happened to be the most logical.
We can only thank our lucky stars that Unai Emery is Unai Emery. Like a deer in headlights, his obsession with refusing to close games out was there for all to see. Villareal’s reaction to going 2-0 up after absolutely cruising was to… bring on one Francis Coquelin at half time. Unai even managed to somehow keep Arsenal’s attempts under double figures, because he’s a comedian like that. I also suspect he was personally involved in some kind of pitch-greasing affair, given both sides’ tendency to make their way to the ground and his own intimate knowledge with all things grease.
And then there’s Mr. Artur Dias and Mr. João Pinheiro who were unable to see what everyone else in the world saw, which was clear simulation from Bukayo Saka to “earn” the penalty. It was straight out of the Spurs playbook of deliberately trailing leg at high speed but both the real time decision and slow-motion, multi-angled replay said otherwise. Somehow.
I shouldn’t be annoyed by this, because it was long overdue that Arsenal should get the rub of the green after some scandalous decisions of late. It was more embarrassing than anything that this was the only thing we had in our locker but it’s a lifeline all the same and you take what you can get.
Besides that little burst of intent from Saka, Arsenal’s chances were few and far between and whatever the gameplan was with the false 9, I’d be very surprised to learn it was “many crosses from deep”. There was no outlet in the box to make use of such deliveries and if anything, it was simply a reflection of Arsenal’s ability to break through Villareal conventionally.
There was some change in our fortunes when Martinelli came on, a player who is always able to raise the levels of those around him, and again when Capoue was sent off after viciously losing his balance. Even in his short cameo, Aubameyang was able to find the space that was there all along and get a shot away but given the angle, there wasn’t much more he could’ve gone.
Arsenal are now tasked with breaking tradition and actually play well at home. The last five ties at the Emirates have been a loss to Everton, a draw with Fulham and Slavia Prague, and losses against Liverpool and Olympiakos. Casting your mind back over these performances does no favours in instilling any kind of confidence about our prospects, which means wholesale change is needed. The good news is, that is easy enough to do.
Dani Ceballos has kindly ruled himself out of the home tie which will give us a fighting chance and from there, Arteta needs to not use his brain. This isn’t about reinventing the wheel or putting man on the moon, it’s about playing players in roles they feel comfortable so they don’t have to think too much and they can express themselves. Stick to the tried and tested (which is a limited frame of reference in Arteta’s repertoire) and make the changes that are obvious to make when the game state demands them.