Why Nicolas Pepe was angry with Granit Xhaka after Arsenal’s goal as Mikel Arteta gets it wrong

Ceballos costs Arsenal again

It seems unfair to go in on Dani Ceballos as the second yellow he received on the night against Villarreal was actually very harsh.

The Spaniard was running towards the ball and could hardly move his foot away from Dani Parejo’s outstretched leg and he was right to complain as he left the field at Estadio de la Ceramica.

But the thing that probably swayed referee Artur Dias on the decision was the fact that Ceballos had already put himself in a position where he was on his last strike.

Within a minute of the second half restarting and with Arsenal 2-0 down knowing they could not really afford anything else to go against them on the night, the Real Madrid loanee was lucky to escape without a second booking for a late tackle in the middle of the park.

He was given his warning by the Portuguese official but chose not to heed it.

After the match it became apparent that Dias was not the only person who had tried to caution Ceballos of his impending fate, as Mikel Arteta revealed he spoke to the players about the need to keep their heads on a sticky night on the Balearic coast.

“Obviously we talked at half time that you have to be careful,” said the Arsenal boss of his conversation with his players in the dressing room.

“There was already a tackle very early, I was going to take him off but by the time Gabi was ready to come on that action happened and he was out.”

Dani Ceballos was sent off in Arsenal's Europa League semi final first leg against Villarreal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Fingers will definitely be pointed at Arteta for choosing to send Ceballos back out there on a yellow when a change was so clearly needed after such a poor first half, but the player needs to take some of the heat as well.

The Gunners Europa League campaign so far has been littered with his mistakes.

For both goals in the second leg against Benfica and goals in both matches against Olympiacos the Spaniard’s lapses in concentration and discipline have proved costly.

Arsenal have been able to recover from all the previous Ceballos errors, but it remains to be seen if this one will finally prove the fatal blow.

Arteta gets it wrong

From the moment the team sheet was revealed for Villarreal vs Arsenal, the main question surrounding the Gunners’ line up was who exactly would be playing up front.

Mikel Arteta had chosen to set his team up without a recognised striker going into the game, and not long after kick off it became apparent he had tasked Emile Smith Rowe with playing the false nine role.

This was not exactly unthinkable before the match given the circumstances. Neither Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nor Alexandre Lacazette were fit enough to start the game and, as a disciple of Pep Guardiola, Arteta will doubtless be well versed in the intricacies of playing an attacking system without a striker.

But given that the Arsenal manager had never tried this very specific style of play – save for a few occasions last season when Joe Willock was sent on during the closing stages of games to chase down opposition defenders as the Gunners looked to hold on to some slender leads – a European semi final seemed an odd time to take this gamble.

Within four minutes this proved to be the case as Arsenal’s attempt at a high press was easily by-passed by Villarreal who drove forward and took an early lead.

The set piece goal could have happened regardless of what formation Arteta set his side up in, but there can be no doubting that playing the unfamiliar false nine caused the Gunners some problems.

Speaking after the match the Spaniard was bluntly philosophical in his assessment of the failed experiment he had just witnessed.

“Obviously when you lose you always get it wrong,” he told the press when asked about his tactics.

Mikel Arteta of Arsenal

But it’s not as if his hands were completely tied by the circumstances outlined before.

Sure, Eddie Nketiah hadn’t pulled up any trees the week before against Everton, but Gabriel Martinelli seems to prove with each and every cameo that he gets in the number nine position that that is where he is destined to end up.

Once the Brazilian came onto the pitch in the second half Arsenal immediately upped their game with a player genuinely capable of leading the high press while providing a goal threat.

Arteta may have been relatively blase about his failed tactics during the game, but the reality is that he got it wrong in the Gunners’ biggest game of the season so far. If he doesn’t get it right next week at the Emirates then serious questions will rightly be asked about the job he has done this campaign.

The Xhaka experiment fails again

The false nine was not the only unorthodox tactic tried by Arteta on the night as he chose to play central midfielder Granit Xhaka out of position at left back once again.

This was something Arsenal are a bit more familiar with given the Swiss international has played there since the 3-0 win over Sheffield United three weeks ago, but that didn’t mean the result was much better.

This should not be interpreted as a criticism of Xhaka in any way as he has been largely excellent since the turn of the year and was rightly labelled by Martin Keown in the BT Sport studio as a candidate for the Gunners most improved player of the year.

But each time Samuel Chukwueze came forward down the right wing the 28-year-old simply didn’t stand a chance.

That coupled with the awkward movements of Gerard Moreno meant that he had a torrid night after being left consistently exposed up against the pace of the Villarreal right side.

Unlike with the false nine tactic Arteta was far more willing to come out defend the choice to put Xhaka at left back after the game.

“Guys when we won 4-0 away to Slavia Prague that they didn’t lose a home game in three years and Granit played so well it was incredibly well playing there,” he said to the press.

“But I know when that doesn’t happen it’s always going to point there.”

Samuel Chukwueze of Villarreal and Granit Xhaka of Arsenal

This was probably a smart bit of man-management from Arteta towards a player whose performance levels tend to correlate with his confidence levels, but the reality is that most people could have told you the Swiss international was going to struggle against the pace Unai Emery ‘s side had to offer.

With a far more orthodox full back in Cedric on the bench, it was odd that Arsenal chose to line up with someone so ill-equipped to deal with the threat their opponents had to offer.

Kieran Tierney was present at Estadio de la Ceramica and now that he is back in training, you would expect him surely to come in and start the home leg next Thursday.

It might be a gamble on the Scotland international’s fitness, but with the Gunners’ season more or less depending on that match, it’s one Arteta has to take.

Pepe steps up

Going into this game one player with a point to prove was Nicolas Pepe.

Unai Emery has been largely respectful when talking about Arsenal since he left the club, but his quite public admission that he wanted to sign Wilfried Zaha instead of his Ivorian teammate in the summer of 2019 will no doubt have stung Pepe somewhat.

So when kick off came it was immediately clear that he wanted to show his former manager why he had been wrong.

Immediately the 25-year-old began pressing with the intensity we’ve become accustomed to in his game in recent weeks and looked the Gunners most dangerous threat throughout the first half.

He very nearly had Arsenal back in the game in the opening 45 after winning a penalty only to see it cruelly ruled out for handball.

Then in the second half as the tide turned even more strongly against the Gunners, Pepe stepped and led by example refusing to lie down and take the 2-0 defeat as a given.

The Ivorian showed ice-cool composure to stick home a penalty that was upheld by VAR which takes his goal contribution tally in the Europa League this season to 10 – more than any other player in the competition.

Given the circumstances of the match, many players may well have been happy to take their foot off the gas having secured the all important away goal, but Pepe simply had no interest in losing on the night.

As Granit Xhaka approached him to celebrate his crucial spot kick, the Ivorian wriggled free of his teammates embrace shouting “let’s go, let’s go” before furiously sprinting, ball in hand, back to the centre circle to restart the game.

His urgency was almost rewarded when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a chance to equalise right at the end of the match, but it wasn’t to be.

Since his arrival for a hefty £72 million price tag the standard criticism of Pepe has been that he doesn’t do it consistently enough or in the big games.

Against Villarreal and his sceptical former manager he showed exactly how ready he is to finally prove the doubters wrong.

 

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