I don’t know what hurts more, the paucity of performance in a season-defining cup tie or being out-smarted by Unai Emery.
I spoke at length in the build-up to last night’s Europa League semi-final clash with Villareal about how Emery, despite all the craziness of his tenure in north London, was no fool and that his success before and after Arsenal was a marker of a smart and experienced coach.
It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that his team produced such a disciplined, effective display on Thursday night. Except, it seems to have caught Mikel Arteta and his staff entirely on the hop.
Whatever they had seen in their pre-match preparation for this first-leg, it simply wasn’t there and it was Emery and his team who had the perfect plan for a disjointed, somewhat makeshift Arsenal side that struggled for long periods.
That we made it out of Dodge with a precious away goal – and might even have snatched an equaliser – was largely thanks, ironically, to some of Emery’s die-hard foibles more than it was our own ingenuity. Mortally wounded and limping, Emery called off the chase at half-time by swapping a striker for a defensive midfielder. It allowed us a chance to breathe and, in the end, probably kept us in the tie.
But it should never have come to that. Shorn of Kieran Tierney, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette, it is perfectly understandable that changes had to be made but the system the manager employed made us ineffective and vulnerable.
I talked in the build-up about Granit Xhaka becoming a target for teams the longer he remained at left back and that was indeed the case again last night. Credit to him, Xhaka has dealt with this unfamiliar role with professionalism and discipline but what it costs the team to accommodate him there is not worth the benefit he brings.
By now, I think we can all agree that moving Xhaka back into midfield and using Cedric Soares at left back would be a much better option. Sure, Cedric has weaknesses of his own in that area but it doesn’t require a midfielder to be pulled out of position to support him and it also doesn’t nullify us as an attacking threat down the left wing.
Against Villareal, the cost of the compromise was all-too-evident as Dani Ceballos was stretched all over the pitch and stretched beyond his limits. He has been error-prone in the Europa League this season and his inability to cope with the demands placed on him was much in evidence again last night, culminating in another red card for the Spaniard. At this point, it is better for all parties that he is limited to a supporting role in Premier League matches ahead of his departure in the summer. Dani doesn’t want for effort or desire, it’s simply the case that he doesn’t have the tools to do what we want or need him to do.
After a chastening, nightmarish opening half, it seemed inexplicable that Arteta would persist with the personnel and system which had proved so ill-equipped…and yet that is precisely what happened. There is no defending or mitigating what is a strangely stubborn and blinkered decision. Anyone with eyes could see what we had tried to do in the opening 45 minutes was badly flawed and had us on the cusp of ignominious elimination.
We owe Bernd Leno a debt of gratitude and a measure of forgiveness for his save to keep us in the tie at 2-0 and the persistence of Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka for finding us a way back into the tie.
That we came within inches of snatching a 2-2 draw is testament to the improvement we made after Ceballos left the pitch. We were better able to compete and impose ourselves on a shrinking home side, albeit aided by Emery’s unwillingness to turn the screw.
What’s clear at this point, though, is that our season is hanging by a thread and there can be no repeat of the kind of lunacy employed in the first leg. We can’t try to out-smart Emery or fox him into some tactical error, rather we have to exploit our strengths and their weaknesses. This was a team that featured a Watford reject, a Tottenham reject, a 35-year-old centre back and a veteran of Arsene Wenger-era Arsenal. This is a team our energy and movement should be ripping to pieces.
Arteta and his staff can consider this first leg something of a let-off but it’s a courtesy they won’t be afforded again. Play like this next week and it’s season over.