Arsenal vs Villarreal: Europa League semi-final second leg is knife-edge game in Mikel Arteta’s reign

Expectation and pressure to win despite trailing on aggregate make this the biggest match of the former Arsenal midfielder’s time as head coach

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 06 May 2021 07:22
Arsenal coach and former club midfielder Mikel Arteta
Arsenal coach and former club midfielder Mikel Arteta

A growing number of Arsenal players are privately questioning Mikel Arteta’s decisions, to go with a small number who can be snappy in training.

Sources around the club say it isn’t “like Jose Mourinho at Tottenham Hotspur”, but the risk is that complaints have arisen for the first time. Some of that is inevitable human grumbling amid indifferent form, and precisely the kind of thing that goes away with positive results.

It is still why this Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal is a genuine knife-edge game for Arteta. It is impossible to escape the feeling that this early stage of his Arsenal reign – if it is to be an early stage – has been building up to this match.

A lot of that is because Arteta has almost ensured his first full season comes down to it.

If Arsenal get past Villarreal, the Basque has the tangible achievement of reaching a European final. That would likely be against a Manchester United side he has an unbeaten record against, having defeated them twice and drawn once. There would be confidence. There could also be true success, as well as another trophy, and a swift return to the Champions League. More than anything, there would be a real feeling of progress.

If Arsenal go out, though, his first full season will be a total bust. It will represent an uninspiring flatlining, which has the potential to unravel.

It should be stressed that the club are fully committed to giving Arteta time, and there has never been any thought of a change – not even amid the miserable spell over November and December. It’s just that these are the kind of positions that can quickly transform when teams get into a “negative cycle”.

That is the danger from this game, and the importance of victory. As much as anything, Arteta must prevent any sense of stagnation or gloom afflicting the team. That’s when problems really combine and multiply.

The great frustration for Arteta is that everyone still talks about what a good coach he is, and how promising his “vision” is. The broad idea he has for Arsenal is what has inspired a lot of players, particularly the younger ones.

The crucial challenge for any manager, however, is communicating that idea so it’s fully understood and applied rather than just heard.

Arsenal lost the first leg against Villarreal 2-1

There have been flashes when you can see something hugely promising, and convincing. Most of them have actually come in big games, from the derby win over Tottenham Hotspur back to that first victory over United.

It is as if it suddenly clicks, like everything has come together.

An issue has been that it is as if the gameplans for these fixtures have been so specific or proscribed that they then fall down when one player is missing or when Arsenal face different opposition.

This is also where some of Arteta’s decisions have been questioned. Some players are unconvinced by his in-game management. While others appreciate how assertive he is, there have been some grumbles about an “occasionally unhelpful arrogance”.

Defenders of Arteta defenders, for his part, would argue that is just a steadfastness about standards that is badly required at the club. They have been lax for too long.

There are connected problems there concerning the quality of the available players. One argument is that he has a weaker squad than every Premier League side above Arsenal other than West Ham United. Along the same lines, a top-level coach recently spoke about how the key with such teams isn’t just to have good players but to have good players that make those around them perform better. Arsenal arguably only have four in the entire squad, and two of those are kids in Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

Unai Emery, Arteta’s predecessor at Arsenal, will again be in the Villarreal dugout

The edge to this game is that Arsenal probably have a better squad than Villarreal. They notionally have a better manager, given Arteta was supposed to be an upgrade on Unai Emery. The Basque has also had more time in the current job.

Otherwise fair explanations for Arsenal’s drop-offs or bad results wouldn’t cut it here. There was even the sense, from Villarreal’s mood at the end of the first leg, that an opportunity had been blown. It is 2-1, when it maybe should have been 2-0 or even 4-1.

Arsenal instead go in with slightly more momentum.

There should be an expectation to win, but there is also a pressure to win. That is about much more than beating Villarreal, or winning the Europa League.

It may be about the future of Arteta’s reign. This is his biggest game so far.

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