As if the supporters aren’t nervous enough, Arsenal face their former boss Unai Emery in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday night – adding extra spice to what is undoubtedly their biggest game of the season so far.
Emery joined the club back in July 2018, replacing club legend Arsene Wenger, but just 17 months into his tenure he was sacked. 518 days later, the Villarreal boss has the opportunity to get one over his former club by dumping them out of a competition he’s proven himself as a specialist in.
The Spaniard won the Europa League with Sevilla three seasons in a row, took Arsenal to a final, and this time finds himself at the semi-final stage with the unfancied Villarreal – not bad, eh?
Aside from the added motivation Emery will have going into the fixture, he also has an inside knowledge of many of the players Mikel Arteta could turn to.
So how can the Gunners ensure they’re not left red-faced by their former coach?
Let’s start with the obvious – Arsenal must cut out the individual errors that have plagued their season. Playing out from the back is fine but only when you’re sure the pass will reach its intended destination. Putting players in tricky positions facing their own goal has often led to the Gunners being dispossessed in key areas. While it’s been a feature of the team’s playing style, the Londoners haven’t mastered it just yet and the night is way too important to take unnecessary risks.
Often this season, Emery’s side have struggled to play their way out from the back when faced with an aggressive press and that’s largely why their defence has been far from watertight. Arteta revealed during his pre-match press conference that Alexandre Lacazette is in contention to feature at Estadio de la Ceramica and his inclusion would allow the Premier League club to do exactly that.
With the Frenchman spearheading the attack the Arsenal press is far more effective and they’re more likely to expose what is clearly a weakness for Villarreal. His ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the game is superior to that of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who could also play a part having recovered from malaria.
Considering there are question marks regarding the fitness of both players, either or will do but with Lacazette’s all-round game the Gunners could cause chaos among Emery’s backline. Juan Foyth, currently on loan at the La Liga outfit from Spurs, has often been tasked with playing at right-back and, if selected, he must be targeted along with the left-back whether it is Alfonso Pedraza or Alberto Moreno who gets the nod.
Villarreal’s biggest threat is Gerard Moreno. The 29-year-old has netted on 26 occasions in all competitions this season and the Gunners must prevent the likes of Dani Parejo and Samuel Chukwueze providing him with the kind of service on which he thrives.
If they do indeed adopt the 4-4-2 system they’ve used regularly, Arsenal must make their extra man in midfield count by being aggressive and imposing themselves physically – Thomas Partey in particular has a huge role to play in this tie. Arteta’s side can ill afford to allow Villarreal’s ball players space and time in possession because they’re capable of doing damage.
The greater intensity at which the Premier League is played in comparison to the Spanish top-flight stands Arsenal in good stead when it comes to having the upper hand physically, but the potential inclusion of some half fit players out of desperation could prove the wrong move by Arteta.
At the Emirates Stadium this season, the Gunners have struggled and the boss will be well aware of that. Scoring on foreign soil is always positive but with the mental block they seem to suffer at home, the significance of away goals becomes greater.
The likes of Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe are more than capable of unlocking the Villarreal defence and chances will come, but Arteta’s men would be foolish not to pay sufficient attention to El Submarino Amarillo’s star men and the task of stifling them.