Hindsight in football is always a wonderful thing.
We’re all brilliant at being able to make the right decisions after the fact, but the real skill comes in being able to tactically choreograph a game so that you are able to win it before the match takes place.
That said though there are some managerial decisions that do just look odd from the get go and across both of Arsenal’s Europa League semi final second legs Mikel Arteta had plenty of those moments.
Playing Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine in the first leg, switching to an almost completely untested 4-3-3 formation in the second and taking off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when the Gunners needed a goal with ten minutes to go all stand out, but perhaps his most strange decision revolved around what he did at left back.
Arsenal’s best displays this season have come when Kieran Tierney has been able to bomb forward from defence to create overloads on the left flank and fashion chances for central attackers.
It is for this reason that the Scot has made more opportunities from open play than any of his teammates this season.
But when he was ruled out for a month with a knee injury against Liverpool at the beginning of April, the lack of obvious replacement meant that the Gunners had lost their most potent attacking threat.
This is not something Arteta hasn’t faced before though.
In fact when he first took over at the club Tierney was out with a dislocated shoulder and Sead Kolasinac was suffering with a mixture of some ankle problems and a muscle strain.
Back then the solution was to move the exciting young winger Bukayo Saka back into defence. While Arteta can’t claim to take credit for the move as it was Freddie Ljungberg who first pioneered the decision in his final two games against Standard Liege and Everton, the teenager’s ascension under the Spaniard in the position was something to behold.
With excellent stamina and aggressive running Saka was able to get forward to the by-line and deliver crosses with a consistency that saw him register two assists from left back despite having never played there before in his career.
But when the same predicament presented itself last month Arteta did not stick to the solution that had served him so well in the past.
Instead the decision was to put Granit Xhaka in at left back for the first game against Villarreal.
From a defensive point of view the move backfired dramatically. The Swiss international has plenty of strengths, but mobility isn’t one of them and he was unsurprisingly exposed by the pace of Samuel Chukwueze.
Within five minutes the Nigerian had already got the better of his opponent and played a key role in helping the Yellow Submarine land an early blow in the tie that Arsenal never really recovered from.
Offensively though the move also didn’t work.
The plan was to repeat what had worked so well in matches against Sheffield United and Slavia Prague where Xhaka had moved central to form a back three alongside Pablo Mari and Rob Holding rather than bombing on to overlap in the style of Tierney.
It was designed to give Arsenal more control over possession, but in gaining that the Gunners surrendered perhaps their biggest and best rehearsed attacking threat down that left hand side allowing Villarreal to keep them at arms length for the vast majority of the tie.
Tierney did return for the second leg, but was clearly not fit enough to get forward with the regularity to create the attacking opportunities that his team needed on the night and the Yellow Submarine’s 30-year-old right back Mario Gaspar had a pretty easy evening.
In fairness to Arteta the decision not to play Saka left back could be justified by the fact that the England international had become such a threat on the right wing since his first stint there towards the end of 2019.
Before the second leg against Villarreal he hinted that his choice to use the 19-year-old in attack was born out of a desire not to confuse his development.
“Bukayo is playing as always in the front line,” he told BT Sport in his pre-match interview.
However in moving Saka to left back again for Sunday’s win over West Brom that explanation seems to have gone almost completely out of the window.
The 19-year-old was sensational getting forward with devastating effect and providing the assist for Emile Smith Rowe’s opener. It was no surprise that the Baggies began to get more of a foothold in the game once he was moved away from the position midway through the second half.
It was great for the victory over West Brom, but having seemingly hinted that he didn’t want to risk Saka’s progression as an attacker for the game against Villarreal, the question has to be asked what changed in the following three days?
football.london understands that Cedric was pencilled in to play the match at left back until Arteta had a late change of heart, which makes the decision even stranger.
After the win on Sunday Arteta insisted that he had no regrets when it came to his selection decisions with Saka for the match against Villarreal and even hinted that the plan for the match was to go for the same tactic of Xhaka at left back which had failed so disastrously in the first leg until the Swiss international was injured in the warm up.
Do you want all the latest news from around Arsenal Football Club straight to your email inbox?
Of course you do.
By signing up for our Arsenal newsletter, you will receive a twice-daily email, focused on all the latest news from the Emirates Stadium.
And, not only that, but you will get exclusive content from our club writers Chris Wheatley and Kaya Kaynak before anyone else.
You won’t miss a thing when it comes to the Gunners.
How do you sign up?
It’s easy and only takes seconds.
Simply type your email address into the box at the top of this article – or any article on the Arsenal section of football.london in fact – labelled ‘Get the biggest daily stories by email’ and click ‘Subscribe’.
Alternatively, you can click here and tick the Arsenal box to subscribe for our Gunners newsletter.
If you decide later that you no longer wish to receive the emails, simply follow the unsubscribe link in one of the newsletters – but we don’t think you’ll want to.
“I regret that Granit could not start,” he told the press.
“That was my biggest regret because everything that we prepared it was with him in that position.”
Surely though if he is being honest with himself the Spaniard will wish he had come to the realisation that the best way to make up for Tierney’s absence was by utilising the most direct replacement available to him in the Arsenal squad.
In moving Saka back to left back for the match against West Brom he more or less admitted as such. Unfortunately for the Gunners though that realisation came one game too late.