Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta hits back at criticism for his team selection against Villarreal

Mikel Arteta speaks to the media after Arsenal's defeat to Villarreal in the Europa League
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta played without an out-and-out striker against Villarreal (Picture: Getty)

Mikel Arteta defended his decision to play without a recognised centre-forward after his Arsenal side lost 2-1 away to Villarreal in their Europa League semi-final first leg.

Villarreal, managed by ex-Arsenal boss Unai Emery, looked to be cruising towards the final as Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol scored before Dani Ceballos was shown a red card for a second bookable offence in the 57th minute at Estadio de la Ceramica.

But Nicolas Pepe reduced the deficit from the penalty spot shortly after Bernd Leno’s stunning save to deny Gerard Moreno and the Gunners’ crucial away goal will give them hope ahead of next week’s second leg at the Emirates.

The hosts were also reduced to 10 men in the 80th minute after former Tottenham midfielder Etienne Capoue was shown a second yellow card while being carried off the field on a stretcher.

Villarreal CF v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League, semifinal
Smith Rowe started the match as Arsenal’s most advanced attacking player (Picture: Getty)

‘Obviously we are disappointed that we lose the game because it’s not the result that we wanted to take from the game,’ Arsenal head coach Arteta told reporters at his post-match press conference.

‘But after the story of the game we have to take it because we are in the tie, we are alive and the circumstances that were in the game put the game and the tie in real danger.’

Villareal CF v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Leg One
Pepe reduced the deficit with a second-half penalty (Picture: Getty)

The visitors badly struggled to create clear-cut chances from open play as Arteta experimented with no out-and-out striker in his starting XI, a bold call which many felt backfired.

‘It’s the way we prepared the game and it’s the decision I made,’ Arteta said when asked about his thinking behind the formation.

‘We thought this was the best way to play but the game was conditioned after four minutes [when Villarreal scored].

‘So it’s difficult to assess whether it would work or not. Conceding the set-piece changed it as well, and after we had to approach it in a different way.’

Villareal CF v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Leg One
Arsenal were reduced to 10 men after Ceballos was sent off (Picture: Getty)

Arteta believes his players eventually managed to regain their shape and composure in the second half after recovering from the shock of going behind so early.

‘After conceding the goal we disorganised ourselves,’ he added.

‘In the high press we were really stretched and we didn’t have the right spaces with the right people and then we were open.

‘We didn’t give ourselves the chance to get set in the final third to do what we wanted to do because we were not precise on the ball as well.

‘Overall, it wasn’t the best, we started the second half in a completely different way.

‘We’ve played with three strikers sometimes and we didn’t score any goals many times this season. It’s a decision I made and that’s it.’

Another major talking point was Granit Xhaka’s continued run in the side as a makeshift left-back in Kieran Tierney’s absence.

Martin Keown criticised Arteta’s decision in his scathing post-match analysis for BT Sport but Arteta argued that the Swiss’ performance filling in against Slavia Prague proves he’s more than capable in the position.

Asked whether he got his selections wrong in attack and at left-back, Arteta replied: ‘Obviously when you lose you always get it wrong.

‘We won 4-0 away from home against Slavia Prague, who didn’t lose a game at home in three years, and Granit played so well. He played incredibly well there.

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

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