Watching on around the world supporters will have been barking orders at Mikel Arteta at half-time as his Arsenal plan unraveled spectacularly in the first leg against Villarreal. A ploy that played right into his opponent’s hands, he had to amend those failings during the break.
Calls along the lines of substituting Dani Ceballos and moving Granit Xhaka into midfield fell on deaf ears, with the Spaniard keeping his team as it was and seeing the most inevitable red card in the history of the game take place shortly after the restart.
There was one Spaniard, however, who did make a change. With his side 2-0 up and cruising without an inkling of a bruising, Unai Emery withdrew Paco Alcacer and brought on Francis Coquelin. As far as shutting up shop goes, it was one of the more conservative substitutions he could have made. How typical.
Coquelin did produce a rather delightful no-look pass to set up Gerard Moreno with a glorious chance, but the Frenchman contributing in the final third is a once in a blue moon occurrence.
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Arsenal vs Villarreal: Unai Emery’s tactical habits could aid Gunners in Europa League ambitions
Were any Arsenal fans surprised by the switch? 18 months of experience suggests otherwise.
That display of conservatism is nothing new, and has been synonymous with his management across his career. If anything, Arteta should have planned for it.
And like that, Villarreal have gone from being in total command of this tie to inviting the Gunners back in with a sniff of redemption. After making that change The Yellow Submarine allowed themselves to be pinned back, even with the extra man, and Arsenal’s goal came as the result of some continued pressure and ‘clever’ play from Bukayo Saka.
Their chance to gift wrap their place in the Europa League final was surrendered, as the two traits of either manager was on full show for the cardboard cutout crowd. Villarreal may well have added to their lead, or held on, but the move was indicative of his style: early changes and a cautious approach leaving a door ajar that could easily have remained closed.
Really, why take off a striker with Arsenal on the ropes? And why so soon? Truly puzzling.
With the second leg fast approaching, Emery’s conservatism could be the key that gives Arsenal an edge on home soil. Can he curb his insatiable appetite?