MARTIN KEOWN: Tinkerman Mikel Arteta is lucky he is still in a job

MARTIN KEOWN: Mikel Arteta is LUCKY he is still in a job after he gambled by not playing a striker in Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final defeat by Villarreal

  • Arsenal were beaten 2-1 in their Europa League semi-final first-leg in Villarreal 
  • Mikel Arteta gambled by starting without a recognised striker on Thursday night 
  • Arteta’s Arsenal were handed a second chance through Nicolas Pepe’s away goal
  • The Gunners boss can still have the last laugh against predecessor Unai Emery
  • Emery, meanwhile, showed signs of his familiar and usual cautiousness this week

Mikel Arteta’s tactics and decision-making on Thursday should have sent Arsenal crashing out of Europe and possibly ended his managerial career at the club.

However, remarkably and thanks to that late penalty won by Bukayo Saka, Arsenal find themselves still very much in this tie against Villarreal.

Arteta is being afforded the rare commodity of time and now he’s the beneficiary of an even rarer occurrence: a second chance. And this is one he really has to take.

Mikel Arteta took a very risky gamble in Arsenal’s Europa League first-leg defeat by Villarreal

Arteta opted not to field a recognised striker in the 2-1 defeat to Unai Emery’s men on Thursday

Arteta experimented with a false nine on Thursday, lining up without a recognised centre forward. Playing with that new formation for the first time in the biggest game of the season was a big ask of the players and a huge gamble. It didn’t pay off.

The best managers I worked under kept it simple in the big games, with clear messages and tried-and-tested systems that the players were familiar with.

One problem facing Arteta 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 key issue, which may well be highlighted against Newcastle tomorrow, is at left back. Granit Xhaka does not deserve to be getting the blame. I feel for him. He’s a midfielder being told to play at left back by his manager in Kieran Tierney’s absence. 

Granit Xhaka struggled against the pacy Samuel Chukwueze in Spain on Thursday

Xhaka played well there against Sheffield United, and Arsenal kept their first clean sheet for 13 games. But he has since been left exposed by higher-quality opponents, such as Richarlison for Everton and Samuel Chukwueze for Villarreal. He could now face Newcastle’s in-form Allan Saint-Maximin.

Let’s not even go into how a club like Arsenal, whose owners wanted them in the closed-shop European Super League, finds itself without a back-up left back.

Villarreal boss Unai Emery identified Xhaka at left back and Dani Ceballos on the left of a midfield two as the vulnerable area in Arteta’s side on Thursday. Emery showed his experience against a team he knew well, while Arteta showed his inexperience. 

Ex-Arsenal boss Emery showed his experience, while Arteta displayed a lack of experience

At 2-0 down, I feared the worst. But Arsenal actually looked more effective with 10 men after Ceballos’s second yellow card and that away goal, scored by Nicolas Pepe, was huge.

Emery’s cautiousness, which plagued him at Arsenal, came back to haunt him and let his old club back into the contest.

All is not lost for Arsenal but the importance of Arteta making the right calls over the next week cannot be understated. The pieces of the puzzle are there but Arteta needs to put them together properly. It starts tomorrow at Newcastle. 

Arsenal were boosted by Nicolas Pepe’s away goal from the penalty spot on Thursday

He has Tierney, David Luiz, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all on the edge of fitness. He has to decide who should get minutes against Newcastle so that he can take a closer look at them, and who he saves purely for Villarreal. 

If Tierney is fit, he walks into the team for that all-or-nothing second leg. If not, Saka must play at left back, a position where has excelled previously for club and country.

If Arteta sticks with 4-2-3-1, Xhaka can then go back alongside Thomas Partey in midfield, where he has been much improved this season. 

Arteta could welcome back leftback Kieran Tierney next week, who travelled to Spain

If Arteta wants to experiment against Newcastle, he could perhaps try 4-3-3, with Emile Smith Rowe, Partey and Saka in the midfield three and Pepe, Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli in the front three. If the game is won early, take off the key men ahead of Villarreal.

Arsenal’s inconsistency this season is perhaps best summed up by their performances in the Europa League knockout stages, with their two-legged ties invariably consisting of one good performance and one bad one. 

With that in mind, while Arteta was outsmarted by his predecessor on Thursday, he can still have the last laugh.

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