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Arsenal vs Villarreal – 3 key tactical battles as Arteta looks to outsmart Emery


If Arsenal are going to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg, they will have to control the areas of the pitch where they struggled last week

At the end of a season which has felt almost unsalvageable at times, Arsenal still have one last shot at redemption.

If Mikel Arteta can get his hands on European silverware, he will have a chance to put a gruelling campaign behind him. Arsenal may be ninth in the Premier League, but they can still qualify for the Champions League next season if they win the Europa League final.

Standing in their way are Villarreal, managed by former Arsenal boss Unai Emery. They hold a 2-1 lead going into the semi-final second leg, having won the first leg thanks to goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol.

Despite looking dead and buried when Dani Ceballos was sent off at 2-0 down, Arsenal managed to get a foothold in the game via a penalty won by Bukayo Saka and scored by Nicolas Pepe. Etienne Capoue was sent off late on and, while Arsenal failed to equalise, they took a crucial away goal home with them.



Pepe's penalty handed Arsenal a lifeline in the first leg
Pepe’s penalty handed Arsenal a lifeline in the first leg

After coming off worse in the tactical battle at the Estadio de la Ceramica, Arteta will need to outsmart Emery at the Emirates. Arsenal still need to win the match outright and, while he may not have entirely happy memories of his time in England, there’s a reason why Emery has won the Europa League a record three times.

For Arteta’s plan to work, Arsenal will have to dominate the areas of the pitch where they were weakest in the first leg. Here are three tactical battles which could define the outcome of the game.

Xhaka or Tierney vs Chukwueze



The sight of Tierney on the team sheet would be a welcome one for Arsenal fans
The sight of Tierney on the team sheet would be a welcome one for Arsenal fans

One of the most obvious mismatches in the first leg came on Arsenal’s left flank, where Granit Xhaka was deputising at left-back. While Xhaka had done a passable job covering for Kieran Tierney up until then, he was harried by Villarreal winger Samuel Chukwueze with the help of supporting runs from right-back Juan Foyth.

Foyth will miss the second leg after limping off with a hamstring injury which, given that he was one of Villarreal’s best performers last week and helped to create their opening goal, will come as a relief to Arteta. Chukwueze will still pose a serious threat, however, and will no doubt relish the chance to draw Xhaka into a foot race.

Kieran Tierney returned to training this week but, after a month out with a knee injury, it’s unclear whether he’s ready to come back into the starting line-up. He would be a better match against Chukwueze but, if he isn’t ready to play, then Xhaka will need support from those around him to limit Villarreal’s threat out wide.

Should Arteta risk Tierney for the second leg? Have your say in the comments.

Partey vs Parejo and Trigueros



Arsenal must do a better job of shutting down the likes of Trigueros, who scored in the first leg
Arsenal must do a better job of shutting down the likes of Trigueros, who scored in the first leg

Though he produced one of the best passes of the game when he found Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang with a pinpoint through-ball late on – unfortunately for Arsenal, Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli made a vital save – Thomas Partey had a difficult game last week.

Villarreal moved the ball between the lines far too easily even before Ceballos’ red card, with Trigueros and Dani Parejo drifting into space and running the corridors. While Ceballos was also culpable, Partey failed to assert himself, read their movement and match their intensity.

With Ceballos suspended – assuming Xhaka starts at left-back – Arteta may be forced to start Mohamed Elneny and Partey at the base of midfield. Elneny’s running game should give Partey greater creative license but, without the ball, he will have to showcase his skills as an interceptor and stop Villarreal’s midfielders from roaming so freely.

Aubameyang vs Albiol and Torres



The Gunners captain will need to lead from the front in the first leg
The Gunners captain will need to lead from the front in the first leg

With Alexandre Lacazette out injured and Aubameyang still not fully recovered from a bout of malaria, Arteta opted to start Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine in the first leg. Smith Rowe tried hard to make it work but, ultimately, it was a failed experiment.

Though Lacazette is back in training, Aubameyang is likely to start up front this time round. Where Smith Rowe dropped deep and allowed Saka and Pepe to take precedence out wide, Aubameyang will look to run off the shoulder and, as such, should provide a different challenge for Villarreal’s central defenders.

Raul Albiol and Pau Torres started together at centre-back in the first leg and, having produced a solid defensive showing, they will likely be the players tasked with stopping him. Emery has conceded that he expects to see “the best version of Auba” at the Emirates and, despite his stuttering form, he still has it in him to decide the tie in Arsenal’s favour.

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