Whatever we think of Unai Emery and his time at Arsenal, he is no mug.
Before, at times during, and after his reign in north London, the Spaniard has shown himself to be a capable and astute manager – a slew of trophies is testament to that.
While it seems he has always fallen at the final hurdle on the biggest stages, he has dusted himself down time and again and, indeed, continues to command respect among coaches and, perhaps most importantly, those in the boardrooms around Europe.
While it is sad he became something of a figure of fun among fans in the Premier League, let’s not forget that he took us to a Europa League final in his first season and missed out on a Champions League place by a hair’s breadth after the team conspired to collect just five points from our last four league games.
We look a million miles from that sort of league form at the moment and with arguably a better, more experienced squad.
If this sounds like I’m pining for Unai, it’s not meant to. I haven’t forgotten the sort of rudderless, insipid football we were playing for much of the Spaniard’s reign, nor the near-suicidal trade-off between creating chances and conceding literally dozens of opportunities on our own goal.
In the end, things just didn’t work out for Unai and his team in London – perhaps we were a little harsher on him than he deserved – but what happened happened and, in the grand scheme of things, was probably the best outcome for all concerned.
What I’m getting at is simply this; Emery was a good coach when he arrived at Arsenal and he remains a good coach now. As much as we enjoy poking fun at some things about his character, not many in football can poke fun at his record on the pitch.
If Emery packed it all in tomorrow, he would have more trophies than most managers collect in a lifetime, with a enviable CV to boot.
All this is to say simply this; Villareal won’t be a walkover for Arsenal – far from it.
While I don’t think too many of us are truly looking beyond this semi-final, I fear some think Emery and the ‘Yellow Submarines’ are merely a stepping stone on our way to the Champions League. We need to be honest with ourselves, it is going to be a slog just to make it through to the final.
Emery has a fearsome record in this competition and, despite the struggles of recent weeks, is doing a solid job in La Liga. You can be sure he will be extremely well-prepared for this two-legged tie and, frankly, I’ll be surprised if it is anything less than gruelling.
That said, we can only really focus on us and ensuring we squeeze the most out of every player. All being well, we can expect to welcome Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back to the starting line-up and Martin Odegaard should be available too. Their inclusion will be confirmed or otherwise by Mikel Arteta in his pre-match press conference today (Wednesday).
Assuming (please god!) that both of the aforementioned are fit, our only real concern will then be what to do at left back. While Granit Xhaka has proven a novel and effective temporary fix for us in that position, it is only a matter of time before plans are made to exploit him.
Everton attempted exactly that and, while for the vast majority of the game it failed, the one time Richarlison was able to get in one-on-one with Xhaka, it resulted in a goal, albeit because of Bernd Leno’s atrocious error rather than the Swiss’s incompetence.
Simply put, Xhaka at left back costs us both defensively and in midfield. We lose too much having a part-timer in that position so I would like to see Cedric Soares restored to the line-up. It may still be a downgrade on Kieran Tierney but his natural defensive inclinations are much less likely to be exposed than Xhaka.
If we’re being practical, the priority for the first leg in Spain is getting on the scoresheet. As we well know, a 1-1 is better than a 0-0 and a 2-1 defeat is better than a 1-0 loss. Scoring in the away leg is not the be all and end all but it does provide a timely insurance policy should it be required. And, given our struggles with scoring this season, god knows we’ll need all the insurance we can get.