UEFA Europa League & Conference League Magazine - Episode 2Sep 29
We asked The Athletic's James McNicholas and Art de Roché to dissect the hot topics from the game.
Emery defeat a bad look for Arteta
Some defeats are more damaging than others. For Mikel Arteta, losing to his predecessor Unai Emery is arguably the worst moment of his young managerial career.
The manner of the defeat is disappointing enough. Over the course of two legs, Arsenal never did enough to suggest they were worthy finalists.
At the Emirates Stadium, there was an inexplicable lack of urgency from kick-off. Over 180 minutes, Arsenal were beaten by the better side.
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But it’s the optics that will place Arteta under particular scrutiny. Here he was bested by Emery, the man Arsenal decided 18 months ago was not good enough.
It’s not a good look. Emery’s Villarreal now find themselves one match away from Champions League football.
Arteta’s Arsenal are facing up to the prospect of a campaign without any European football whatsoever.
Losing Xhaka late
Arsenal have missed Kieran Tierney so much that, when he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement when Granit Xhaka was injured in the warm-up, it almost felt like a positive development.
However, this kind of late enforced change rarely benefits a team. It means a change of plans and a shift in approach.
Tierney effectively played this game in the “Xhaka” role — generally holding his position and looking to help progress the ball through passing rather than ball carries.
It’s unclear whether that was due to concerns over his fitness, or an attempt to adhere to Arteta’s original plan.
Whatever the case, it did not work particularly well. In some respects, it was surprising Tierney stayed on as long as he did — Arteta could have swapped Bukayo Saka into left-back before the 79th minute and got an extra attacking player onto the field.
Xhaka’s loss hurt Arsenal. Ultimately, it is Arsenal’s decision not to replace Sead Kolasinac with a specialist back-up left-back that looks most costly.
Bellerin’s shock start
Seeing as Mikel Arteta set up with Thomas Partey as the lone pivot, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard as creative midfielders and Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe as wingers — as was the case at Sheffield United (with Odegaard in for Gabriel Martinelli) — Hector Bellerin’s starting at right-back came as a shock.
Ahead of kick-off, the manager stated his performance at Newcastle was the reason, but looking at Arsenal in recent months, they have looked much more dangerous with Calum Chambers at right-back.
While Bellerin’s height appeared to be the main factor in starting there against Burnley — since then his crossing technique, accuracy and volume have been key. Throughout the season, Cedric has also proven to be a better ball retainer.
Bellerin’s passing was under the spotlight immediately and early mistakes seemed to weigh on him.
Misplaced passes disrupted any chance of building through the thirds. Rushed touches when inverting into central areas resulted in costly turnovers. The return of the sliding cross saw attacks wasted in the final third as well.
During Arsenal’s positive start to the second half, he clipped a nice cross into the box which created chaos for Smith Rowe’s missed chance.
Late in the game he got forward well and provided another good cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who hit the post. But aside from these two moments, the general lack of urgency across the team did not escape Bellerin.
With Arsenal’s season on the line, selecting the most consistently dangerous offensive players was a priority that wasn’t met fully.
One-man Partey in midfield
As Arteta has chopped and changed his system, one consistent thread has been Partey acting almost as a one-man-midfield. Whoever else Arteta nominally picks in that area, they seem instructed to vacate the space, with the Ghanaian left to fend for himself.
It is, in a sense, a compliment. Few players have the athleticism or skill to cope with that kind of tactical demand. Against Villarreal, however, neither did Partey. Isolated in the middle of the park, he struggled.
Partey seems to suffer for being good at his job as Arteta simply asks too much of him. Arsenal know better than most that great midfields are often based on partnerships. Patrick Vieira thrived next to Emmanuel Petit and then later Gilberto Silva. Cesc Fabregas blossomed with the support of Mathieu Flamini.
Partey is a talented player, but he needs more support.
Lacking without Luiz
Arsenal look a different team without David Luiz. That much was evident with just over 45 minutes played away at Newcastle United, where the Brazilian impressed on his first start for six weeks.
His clipped ball that led to Mohamed Elneny’s opener displayed the comfort he has with the ball at his feet relative to Arteta’s other right-footed centre-backs.
The quarter-final first leg at home to Slavia Prague was another night in which Arsenal’s difficulties without Luiz were clear.
On that night, Rob Holding frequently strode forward with few midfield options, forced to go long to Saka down the right. That connection led to one massive chance for the 19-year-old, but aside from that, it was a pass that became more predictable and harder to make.
Similar struggles came with Villarreal in north London. With little support for Partey, the routes forward were strained. As Unai Emery’s side frustrated Arteta, Saka chasing those long balls into the corner with little support was not the solution.
When talking through the smooth passing moves of mid-April, Arteta detailed the importance of a clean progression of the ball.
“With the ball, the first process (playing the ball from defence) was clean,” he said after beating Sheffield United.
“When everything is clean, it helps the next line, it helps the strikers to get on the ball in the right space. Today, they did that. As a team, we had really good cohesion.”
That sharpness was lacking from back to front throughout the defeat to Villarreal and took its toll as Arsenal struggled to truly break down another side.