Thursday, November 30, 2023

Villarreal preview: Fitness boosts or mind-games + the importance of the away leg

Nothing but football today as Arsenal face Villarreal later on in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final.

We all know the importance of this game, and it’s one that has added flavour because we face a side managed by former head coach Unai Emery. Part of the reason he was hired by Arsenal was his Europa League pedigree. Having won it three times with Sevilla, the hope was he’d get us a European trophy and Champions League football by virtue of that, or our league finish. He got us to the final, but in doing so took his eye off the ball domestically and lost out on the top four by a single point before getting battered by Chelsea in Baku (too soon, I know).

Here he is again, doing it with Villarreal. They lie 7th in La Liga, still in the fight for the European places – just 4 points off 5th place – but this competition his karaoke favourite, and they are a side we can’t underestimate. I mean, given the way we’ve played this season there are few teams we could categorically state we’re better than. Maybe we have the edge in terms of individual talent, but 7th in Spain versus 10th in England (with uncontrollable self-destruction issues) feels like a pretty even match-up to me.

There was a boost yesterday when it comes to team news. I wasn’t expecting much when Mikel Arteta was asked about the availability of David Luiz, Kieran Tierney, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

“They are all in contention,” said the manager. “All of them. Including Aubameyang, Laca and Kieran. They are all in contention for the game.”

A little later he was asked about the risk of playing them, given that Luiz has had (minor) knee surgery; the captain is recovering from Malaria; Lacazette seemed to pull his hamstring against Fulham; and Tierney’s knee problem was initially diagnosed as one which would keep him out for four to six weeks – and that was just three weeks ago. Arteta said:

We do need them, because we know that we have some players that are in contention and they are the ones who can make the difference in a big tie like this. But the word risk, I don’t like to put players on the pitch if they can’t perform and they can’t feel secure that they can perform. If it’s a risk or we’re going to take a gamble, then I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

So, a little more caution there, and realistically, I don’t think you can take a gamble and start all four, even if you wanted to. If I had to pick two of them, it’d be Tierney – so we don’t have to use Granit Xhaka at left-back; and Aubameyang to start up front. The former is probably the highest risk due to the nature of his injury, but if the captain has recovered sufficiently and you can get a good 60-70 minutes out of him, it’s worth it. At worst he’ll be fatigued by his condition and not quite be 100%, so it’s not as if he’s going aggravate a physical injury.

I’d be hugely surprised to see all four involved from the start though, and I just wonder if making their potential availability public is a little bit of mind-games from the manager as he prepares to face a coach who, as we know well, pays a lot of attention to what the opposition are going to do and how they’re going to play. This certainly muddies Emery’s pre-game thinking just a little bit. The main thing is the players are close to being ready, of course, but I’m sure – like many of us – Emery’s plans didn’t factor in the availability of a couple of them, at least.

If Tierney isn’t fit, I’d expect Xhaka to continue there – although I wouldn’t be averse to moving him back to midfield. He’s been generally fine, but our last few performances as a team haven’t been much to write home about, so Arteta has to find the balance between potential disruption to his back four and finding a way to make the team more effective. I do think Xhaka in midfield alongside Thomas Partey is our strongest pairing, and maybe what we gain there we can afford to ‘lose’ with someone like Cedric at left-back. At centre-half I think it will be Rob Holding and Pablo Mari unless David Luiz is fit, and if that’s the case fellow Brazilian Gabriel will probably play alongside him. Calum Chambers isn’t the most exciting option at right-back but I suspect he’ll start ahead of Hector Bellerin.

Our strengths, despite the fact we don’t score enough and create enough chances, do lie further forward. If you can play Aubameyang with players like Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and potentially Gabriel Martinelli behind him, you give their defenders plenty to think about. If neither of the senior strikers is quite ready to start, I’d go for Martinelli up front ahead of Nketiah. I think about what their centre-halves will feel when they see a teamsheet with Eddie on it as opposed to someone who will run them ragged and has that ability to produce something out of very little in the penalty area. With all due respect to Eddie, I know which I’d prefer.

On Villarreal, Arteta says:

I’d say the main thing is the clarity of idea that they have both with and without the ball, and in transition and set-pieces they have very clear ideas and some great connections between the players. They have some fantastic individual players in the final third and they can decide a game at any time. They compete throughout the game and they also have an ability to change system using either the same players or different players during a game, and that makes them a very difficult to read.

They have La Liga’s third top scorer in Gerard Moreno (behind only Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema), and some dangerous players behind him too. I don’t think you can ignore the fact that despite not poking the hornets nest with any pre-game comments, this is a tie that Emery will be desperate to win for personal reasons. It didn’t end well for him at Arsenal, and that will be a motivation.

From our perspective, the away leg in the last two knock-out rounds has been crucial to our progress. At home we’ve less convincing, so tonight is really important, and away goals could be absolutely key to this. Both sides come into this on the back of two poor results domestically (Villarreal lost to Alaves and Barcelona, while we drew with Fulham and lost to Everton). Semi-finals have a particular energy though, and we need to make sure we harness that in a positive way. A good result tonight will go a long way to getting to the final, the game which could save our season.

As ever we’ll have a live blog for you and all the match related stuff on Arseblog News. There’s a two-part preview podcast for Patreon members here, and I’ll catch you later on for the game.

Come on Arsenal.

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