Arteta’s Smith Rowe gamble backfires but Pepe hands Arsenal crucial Europa League lifeline

Trying something new is not a bad thing but perhaps the semi-final of a European competition is not the best time to do it – especially when your season is on the line.

Mikel Arteta has shown before that he is not the type of manager who is afraid to think outside the box but this time his gamble backfired in calamitous fashion.

Arsenal now find themselves with it all to do in their Europa League semi-final second leg against Villarreal following a disappointing 2-1 first leg defeat away from home.

Given they went into this game sitting 10th in the Premier League, and with their chances of qualifying for Europe next season all but over through domestic matters, Arteta knew his side had no room for error in Spain.

Yet he opted to roll the dice, surprising everyone by starting without a recognised striker and using 20-year-old playmaker Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine.

It was something straight out of the Pep Guardiola playbook, but while it may have worked for Arteta’s mentor against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, it failed miserably for the Arsenal boss at El Madrigal.

“It is the way we prepared the game,” Arteta said afterwards. “It is the decision that I made, thinking that it was the best way to play.

“But the game was conditioned after four minutes. So it is difficult to assess whether it would work or not. Conceding the set piece as well changed it and after we have to approach it in a different way.”

The key to playing with a false nine is having movement all around that player to pull defenders out of position and ensure there are still plenty of bodies in and around the box.

But that just didn’t happen for Arsenal and Villarreal’s defence will rarely have had an easier evening than they did until Gabriel Martinelli was introduced just after the hour mark.

By that time, Arsenal were already 2-0 behind and staring defeat in the face with Dani Ceballos having been sent off for picking up two yellow cards.

But Martinelli’s introduction gave Arsenal more of a focal point at the spearhead of their attack and the visitors did at least manage to salvage a goal from the tie and give themselves something to play for in next week’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium.

That lifeline came from the penalty spot, with Nicolas Pepe scoring his sixth Europa League goal of the season after Bukayo Saka had been tripped in the box.

For Arteta, the goal would have been a huge relief considering how the game had been going up to that point.

Arsenal’s manager had said in the build-up that these were the type of games that players lived for, yet to a man his team endured a shocking first half.

Arteta once again opted to start with Granit Xhaka at left-back and within just five minutes the Switzerland international had been exposed by Samuel Chukwueze, allowing Manu Trigueros to fire home the opener.

And things got even worse just before the half hour when Raul Albiol was left all alone from a corner to volley in from close range and double the home side’s lead.

At that point it felt like Arteta had to change things at the break, with his game plan clearly not working. But the Spaniard decided to stick to his guns and kept things the same at the start of the second period, even though Ceballos had already been booked and looked a near certainty to be sent off.

The midfielder had been off the pace all night and it was no surprise when he was finally dismissed on 57 minutes when he was booked again for another late foul.

Arteta said after the game that he was about to take the Real Madrid loanee off, but the truth is he should never have come out for the second half in the first place.

“Obviously we talked at half-time that we had to be very careful,” the manager said. “There was already a tackle very early and I was going to take him off and by the time that Gabi [Martinelli] was ready to come on, that action happened and he was out.”

With his side down to 10 men and the game slipping away, Arteta did eventually make a change when he brought Martinelli on. And it was no surprise to see Arsenal improve following the introduction of the Brazilian.

They suddenly had a bit of a threat about them when they had the ball, despite being down to 10 men. And when Saka went over in the area, Pepe stayed calm to slot home a penalty with 17 minutes remaining and keep the tie alive.

Arsenal could even have been going back to London on level terms, but Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli produced a smart stop to deny Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had been introduced as a late substitute.

Make no mistake about it, however, this was a huge let-off for Arteta.

He tried to be too clever and it backfired. Fortunately for him, his side managed to give themselves a lifeline ahead of the second leg.

Aubameyang will hopefully be back to full fitness by then and Alexandre Lacazette could also be available.

That should make Arsenal more of a threat and the false nine experiment we saw in Spain will not be something we see replicated again.

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