‘We can beat anyone when we play properly’

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April 30, 2021
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    Mikel Arteta and Unai EmeryMikel Arteta played Nicholas Pepe as a false nine against Villarreal

    For a long while it looked like the nightmare scenario was unfolding for Arsenal.

    Unai Emery, sacked by the Gunners in November 2019, was enjoying the perfect reunion as his Villarreal side were 2-0 up and cruising in their Europa League semi-final first leg.

    It got even better when Arsenal were reduced to 10 men when Dani Ceballos was sent off for the visitors after the hour. From then on, the knives were starting to sharpen for Mikel Arteta on social media.

    But Nicholas Pepe converted a penalty to give Gunners a precious away goal and a lifeline.

    • Pepe penalty gives Arsenal hope

    "I'm happy in the second half we picked ourselves and have given ourselves a chance at the Emirates," Arsenal's Bukayo Saka, who won the penalty for his side, said.

    "We showed we are better than them, even with 10 men, so it is up to us. When we play properly we can beat anyone."

    So did Arsenal get away with one against Villarreal? And were there signs that they can indeed beat anyone when at their best?

    'False nine' experiment failed to work?

    Gabriel Martinelli interacts with team-mate Thomas ParteyMikel Arteta had been criticised by some Arsenal fans on social media for not starting striker Gabriel Martinelli

    Even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would have been hard-pressed to find much merit from the Gunners' display in the first hour, which showcased two costly defensive lapses, the largely ineffective deployment of Pepe as a 'false nine' and a loss of discipline from Ceballos.

    But then came the lifeline – the small amount of contact on the leg of Saka that prompted him to go down in the box. Pepe did the rest.

    Out-thought for much of the game, Arteta refused to allow his side to be out-fought and it is to their credit that they were able to push forward with a man less and find the moment that may well have swung this tie back into the balance.

    There remains a huge amount of work to do and a massive test ahead of them next Thursday.

    Villarreal's record after first-leg wins is impressive, with the 'Yellow Submarine' having progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competition when winning the first leg.

    And in Emery they have a man who knows all about winning Europa League semi-finals. He did it three times en route to winning the competition three years running with Sevilla and was the last man to successfully guide the Gunners to a European final.

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    'It looked like a previous manager embarrassing the current one'

    Former Arsenal captain Martin Keown felt Arteta got his tactical set-up wrong for the game and can consider himself very lucky that the Gunners are still in the tie.

    "You think about the risks he took not playing a striker, partnerships were in disarray all over the pitch," the ex-defender told BT Sport.

    "The penalty gives Arsenal a chance. At one stage it looked like we were completely out of it. Arsenal got away with one without a doubt.

    "It looked like the previous manager was embarrassing the current manager and that would be embarrassing for the current owner and board.

    "It has been a rollercoaster season for Arsenal fans and the team have to turn up for the home leg. If they don't bad things will happen."

    Unai EmeryEmery was replaced by Arteta at Arsenal two years ago

    Former England forward Lianne Sanderson feels Arteta is showing little sign of taking Arsenal to the next level.

    "I question why Mikel Arteta doesn't come under more pressure," she told BBC Radio 5 Live.

    "I'm not advocating for managers to get the sack but they haven't progressed in my opinion. I thought they were excellent in the last round against Slavia Prague but I don't think he's taken them to another level."

    Former Celtic boss and BBC Radio 5 Live pundit Neil Lennon believes it is vital for Arteta to win the Europa League and prove that he is capable of taking them to the next level.

    "I don't see a progression with Arsenal," he said. "They have been good in Europe but the domestic campaign has been pretty poor.

    "I found them a hard watch, I don't think it is a great dressing room – I think they lack some backbone. They need some recruitment. Mikel will come under a lot of scrutiny if they don't win this trophy."

    'Must be seriously looking over his shoulder' – what you said

    Mark in Birchanger: Arteta got everything wrong tonight but somehow got away with one…..

    Ade: Nothing more frustrating than players cheating for penalties, free-kicks, bookings. Both sides have been awful for simulation tonight then sprinting away to celebrate their 'clever' play.

    Simon in Cambridge: Arteta has a dreadful percentage win stats. He seriously must be looking over his shoulder this summer. Surely!?!

    GM: What excuses will Arteta use this time, rather than just admitting that Arsenal are just not good enough?

    Archie in Dundee: Everyone said Ceballos had to be substituted, particularly after the last warning. Arteta is Clueless trying to be Pep.

    Jan in London: Every single fan watching knew that Ceballos should have been taken off. The one person that couldn't see it… ARTETA. Awful management. It's time to go now. No more excuses.

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