Trying something new is not a bad thing, but perhaps the semifinal of a European competition is not the best time to do it, especially when the season is at stake.
Mikel Arteta has shown before that he is not the type of coach who is afraid to think outside the box, but this time his gamble failed in a calamitous way.
Arsenal now have all they have to do in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Villarreal after a disappointing 2-1 loss in the first leg away from home.
Given that they entered this game in 10th place in the Premier League, and with their chances of qualifying for Europe next season on domestic grounds, Arteta knew his team had no margin for error in Spain.
However, he opted to roll the dice, surprising everyone by starting without a recognized striker and using 20-year-old playmaker Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine.
It was something straight out of Pep Guardiola’s 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 manager at El Madrigal.
“It’s the way we set up the game,” Arteta said afterward. “It’s the decision I made, thinking 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. Giving the set piece changed it too and then we have to approach it differently.”
The key to playing a false nine is to have movement around that player to get the defenders out of position and make sure there are still plenty of bodies in and around the area.
But that just didn’t happen for Arsenal and the Villarreal defense will rarely have had an easier night than they did until Gabriel Martinelli was introduced just after the hour mark.
At that time, Arsenal were already 2-0 behind and were facing defeat with the expulsion of Dani Ceballos for collecting two yellow cards.
But Martinelli’s introduction gave Arsenal more of a focal point on the spearhead of their attack and the visitors at least managed to save a tie goal and have something to play 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 stumbled in the area.
For Arteta, the goal would have been a huge relief considering how the game had gone up to that point.
The Arsenal manager had said in preparation that these were the kind of games players lived by, but for a man, his team endured a shocking first half.
Arteta once again opted to start with Granit Xhaka on the left back and in just five minutes the Swiss international had been exposed by Samuel Chukwueze, allowing Manu Trigueros to shoot home the first goal.
And things got worse just before half an hour, when Raúl Albiol was left alone from a corner to launch a volley from close range and double the advantage of the locals.
At the time, it felt like Arteta had to turn things around at halftime, with her 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, despite the fact that Ceballos had already been booked and it seemed almost certain that he would be sent off.
The midfielder had been out of rhythm all night and it came as no surprise when he was finally sent off in the 57th minute when he was booked again for another late foul.
Arteta said after the game that he was about to take out the Real Madrid loan, but the truth is that he should never have gone into the second half in the first place.
“Obviously we talked at halftime that we had to be very careful,” said the coach. “There was already a very early entrance and I was going to get it out and by the time Gabi [Martinelli] he was ready to go in, that action happened and he was out. “
With his 10-man squad and the game slipping away, Arteta finally made a change when he brought in Martinelli. And it wasn’t a surprise to see Arsenal improve after the Brazilian’s introduction.
Suddenly, they had a bit of a threat when they had the ball, even though there were only 10 men left. And when Saka went over the area, Pepe remained calm to score a penalty with 17 minutes remaining and keep the tie alive.
Arsenal could even have returned to London on equal terms, but Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli made a clever save to deny Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had been introduced as a late substitute.
Make no mistake about it though, this was a huge disappointment for Arteta.
He tried to be too smart and failed. Fortunately for him, his team managed to give themselves a lifeline before the second stage.
Hopefully Aubameyang will be back in top form by then and Alexandre Lacazette could be available as well.
That should make Arsenal more of a threat and the false nine experiment that we saw in Spain will not be something we will see replicated again.