Do it Arteta – How Arsenal can defeat Villarreal tonight to reach Europa League final

Arsenal vs Villarreal.
Arsenal vs Villarreal. (imago Images)

The outcome – Villarreal beat Arsenal

Villarreal and Arsenal went head-to-head in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League semi-final on Friday, 29th April 2021. The two teams are not doing particularly well in their leagues and this competition is a chance for them to salvage the season as well as secure a UEFA Champions League berth for next campaign, something which is not possible for the duo via their league position this year.

And the Yellow Submarines took the upper hand after a 2-1 victory at Estadio de la Ceramica. They actually rushed to a 2-0 lead within the first half-hour and the Gunners then had a man sent off in the second half. But Unai Emery’s men were more vulnerable after the Premier League side went down to 10-men and conceded a foolish penalty to gift an important away goal to Arsenal.

What can Arsenal do now?

Due to the massive away goal, the Gunners have a lot of hope. A 1-0 win would be enough to send them through to the final in Gdansk, Poland. But for that, they would need a clean sheet and if Villarreal score even once, Arsenal would need three to go through in regular time. And if the Spanish side score twice like they did in the first leg, then the Gunners would need 4 goals to avoid elimination.

So what can they change? Their formation? Personnel? A bit of both? Nothing at all? Let us find out what they can learn from the first leg defeat to overcome the Spaniards in London.

The formations

Both teams went with their trusted formations in the first leg. Arsenal fielded a 4-2-3-1 and Villarreal opted to go with the 4-4-2, which they have come to trust under Emery this season. However, before and during the games are two different things.

Image A shows the average positions of the starting XI in the first leg. It is visible that Arsenal’s decision to not start a recognized centre-forward meant that they played almost with a false-9, with wingers being their most advanced men. As for Villarreal, their attack was focused much on the right as the left flank did not see them make a lot of progress.

Image A. (WhoScored)

The formation itself isn’t wrong. Every set-up has positives and its own negatives. What matters is how they are utilized, such as Arsenal’s great use of Thomas Partey (18) as a shield for the centre-backs. In this aspect, Arsenal can tweak it a little.

Starting a striker

Yes, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was not fully fit against the Spanish side and he did come on later, but there is no doubt that Mikel Arteta has to start him in the second leg. With Alexandre Lacazette a doubt, Arteta just has Aubameyang to play in that position, with Eddie Nketiah also on the bench.

The lack of a natural striker hurt the Gunners last week. Image B shows the attacking stats of Emile Smith Rowe, who played as a false-nine. The 20-year-old is an attacking midfielder by trade and cannot be blamed for his attacking display.

But he still had no shots on or off target last Thursday, let alone score or assist. He also had no key passes and was largely chasing shadows the whole game. This is where Arsenal need to improve in the second leg.

Image B. (SofaScore)

Image C shows the difference that it made during the game. Villarreal had 3 times more shots on target than Arsenal despite both having the same number of attempts. On top of that, Image D shows how lame Arsenal were in the box because they had no natural strikers who could get into predatory positions. They had 0 shots inside the 6-yard box the whole game from open play.

Image C. LEFT- Villarreal, RIGHT- Arsenal. (SofaScore)
Image D. (WhoScored)

As for Smith Rowe, he can tuck into Arteta’s midfield in a more balanced role. Thankfully for the Gunners, Dani Ceballos is suspended as a result of his red card in the first leg.

The Spaniard had a terrible showing, with just 77% pass accuracy, playing no key passes and losing the ball 11 times in 57 minutes. (h/t SofaScore)

Exploit the high line

Villarreal played the high line at times despite being 2 goals to the good, which shows that Gunners can still do it. So if situations, such as the one in Image E arises, they must make the most of it. In this case, Nicolas Pepe (red circle) got into the box with the ball and won a penalty, which was later overturned by VAR.

Image E.

Apart from that, a great side to exploit seems to be Villarreal’s left flank, considering their left-back Alfonso Pedraza’s urge to get into attacking positions. This is showcased in Image F, where he (yellow circle) is seen venturing very high up the pitch.

Coupled with Villarreal’s high line and the urge for full-backs to try and join the attack, Arsenal can exploit this with the pace of Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe on the counter.

Image F.

Learn from mistakes

The most vital thing on Thursday will be to try and not concede. One goal scored by Villarreal will change the dynamic of the whole tie, which is why Arsenal would know that they should not overcommit.

The first goal that they let in came from the Arsenal players being more interested in overcrowding the box than actually picking up runners. This is showcased in Image D, where Manu Trigueros (yellow circle) is not picked up. He gets the ball, shoots, and scores comfortably to make it 1-0.

Image G.

The space offered to Trigueros was almost criminal there. But that 8th-minute mistake was then repeated in the 29th minute when Raul Albiol was left unmarked at the far post. Image H shows the Villarreal defender (yellow circle) steering clear of his man to be free at the far post.

Considering he is a centre-back, marking him should have been a priority. Yet, he was allowed to roam freely and score.

Image H.

This type of loose marking and ball-watching simply cannot fly in the second leg. These are two errors they must learn from to avoid elimination.

Make use of the possession

The dynamic of the second leg seems to be clear already. Image I showcases the number of passes both teams made between 57th and 80th minute, the time when Villarreal had a one-man advantage.

Image I. LEFT- Villarreal, RIGHT- Arsenal. (WhoScored)

It’s clearly visible that Arsenal, despite the one-man disadvantage, made more passes in Villarreal’s final third. The press from the Spanish side was low, which is why they just had 4 passes in their own defensive third, showing a smooth and easy transition of play for them.


If Villarreal could not dominate the ball and attack Arsenal when the Gunners had a man sent off, it seems likely that they will sit back to defend in the 2nd leg and let Arsenal do the work. This is where the Gunners would have to be patient and maintain shape to avoid counter-attacks

The biggest area where Arteta must pay attention is left-back, where Kieran Tierney is now back in training and Granit Xhaka, a central midfielder, played in the first leg. This would be a big reason why Samuel Chukwueze was playing so far up the pitch trying to exploit that gap. Image J shows the difference in heatmaps of the Spanish side’s two wingers. One playing against Xhaka is clearly the most advanced.

Image J. (SofaScore)

Chukwueze had 2 key passes and one shot on target, and that flank is one area where Arsenal must be careful. Kieran Tierney’s involvement (if he is fit enough to play) will be crucial for Arteta.

Image K. (SofaScore)

Arsenal had their own key man, Bukayo Saka, as his stats reflect in Image K. His mazy run won the penalty that led to Arsenal’s goal and he was seeing the most action inside the box. So more of this in the next leg would be useful. And with Aubameyang fit to start, Arteta would be praying for the best.

Written by Aniket Rai

An ordinary football fan, doing what he loves.

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