Villarreal head into their highly anticipated Europa League semi final second leg match against Arsenal with an aggregate lead but a lot of work to do. The Yellow Submarine were impressive in the first leg but allowing Arsenal to score an away goal has changed the complexion of the tie.
In the first half of the game, Villarreal were absolutely dominant. Scoring 2 early goals and creating a number of chances were signs that they were heading for a big victory. Pushing high up the pitch and hardly allowing a striker-less Arsenal any room to breathe was going some way to showing Unai’s old club that Villarreal were not to be underestimated.
Emery is the most successful manager in the history of the Europa League, winning it three times at Sevilla and reaching the final with Arsenal in 2019, but lost 4-1 to Chelsea in Baku. His CV in this competition is outstanding, winning his last 21 two-legged knockout ties in a row.
However, whilst the first leg against Arsenal showcased his pedigree in Europe, especially compared to the fairly inexperienced Mikel Arteta in the opposite dugout, it also highlighted his flaws. At half time Villarreal were in complete control and could have kept the same attacking intensity and finished the tie off in the first leg. Arsenal were missing both their main strikers, were toothless in attack and a mess at the back. Instead of going for the kill, Unai made a baffling substitution, taking striker Paco Alcacer off for Francis Coquelin.
The 442 formation in the first half was working perfectly, yet he chopped and changed it for ‘tactical reasons’ which resulted in 4 central midfielders on the pitch at the same time in a conservative 451 shape. This change meant Villarreal had lost some of the attacking impetus which looked deadly in the first half and allowed Arsenal back into the game. Inviting pressure from the opponents resulted in Arsenal having more time on the ball and gave away a (controversial) penalty. Whilst the decision to award the penalty is strongly debatable, in the build up to it Arsenal were building attacking momentum which was non-existent in the first half.
This was not an unexpected error from Unai. For all his experience at different clubs across Europe, this was a common theme, especially in his time at Arsenal and Paris-Saint Germain. All his good work in setting the team up to play on the front foot was replaced by holding onto a narrow lead in a tie which his side were previously dominating.
Emery should think back to a low point in his career – the famous ‘remontada’ 6-1 loss to Barcelona which knocked his PSG side out of Europe despite winning the first leg 4-0. Despite Edinson Cavani scoring an away goal in the second half, his team invited so much pressure from Barcelona, were passive on and off the ball and it was an open invitation for them to complete the biggest ever Champions League comeback.
Whilst it may seem odd to compare a 2-1 win to a 6-1 loss, the same indicators of weakness are showing; Emery’s tendency to change a winning formula, to overly respect the opposition and to sit back when taking a lead may cost Villarreal a chance of reaching the final if they do the same in this second leg.
Unai Emery must learn from his previous mistakes from years back as well as last week. If he sets his team up to concede possession and try and hold on to a narrow lead, then Arsenal could very well complete a comeback. Arsenal are vulnerable at home: they have only scored 19 league goals in 17 league games at the Emirates this season. There is only a small quality gap between the two squads on paper.
If Emery sets his team up to dominate the ball and attack Arsenal’s dodgy defence, then Villarreal could secure an early away goal which would go some way to killing the tie. If Villarreal defend from the outset, Arsenal will grow in confidence knowing all they need is a 1-0 win.
I would play the 442 formation which worked so well in the first half last week. Allow Gerard and Chukwueze time on the ball down the right-hand side and take the initiative. The yellow’s best chance of reaching their first Europa League final is through scoring an away goal. Take away the only advantage Arsenal have from the first leg.
Whilst there is an argument to set up to counter, given Arsenal’s weakness defending counter attacks and the pace available through Samu as an outlet, allowing them more time on the ball would be a mistake. Unlike the first leg, Arsenal have Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, and possibly Kieran Tierney available. With no Capoue or Foyth, it would be costly to try and hold the first leg lead with Mario and Coquelin in their place. I cannot see Villarreal progressing without an away goal.
Even though he’s been fairly quiet of late, I would still start Paco Alcacer in a front 2 with Gerard. Arsenal found it easier to deal with one striker than 2, and he could find pockets of space against Rob Holding.
On the face of it, this article may sound harsh. Emery deserves credit for the win last week and the way his team played for large parts of the game, but his unnecessary tactical change allowed the opponents a route back into the tie where there should not have been. Will the demons that haunted him during the ‘Remontada’ show their face again, or will he adapt his ways to see out what could be one of Villarreal’s greatest nights?
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