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    Mikel Arteta must make bold changes for Villarreal second leg

    Arsenal’s lackluster performance at Villarreal last Thursday was the type fans have become accustomed to this season.

    Mikel Arteta’s side carried very little goal threat – largely due to the fact the boss opted to play without a recognised striker – and defensively…well, the less said about that the better.

    Facing your former manager is never easy, particularly when he has a strong understanding of many of the current group’s strengths and weaknesses. However, what made the defeat at La Ceramica last week incredibly frustrating from an Arsenal viewpoint is that it wasn’t an Unai Emery masterclass – in fact, it was far from it.

    His decision to substitute Paco Alcacer and replace him with Francis Coquelin at half time was typical Emery. As a result of the change, the hosts sunk deep, became extremely passive and surrendered control of possession to a very poor Arsenal side.

    When Arsenal’s away goal came approximately 15 minutes from time, even the most ardent of supporters would admit they were extremely fortunate. Bukayo Saka engineered contact between himself and Manu Trigueros and the referee bought it, pointing to the spot immediately. Nicolas Pepe cooly converted and having managed just two attempts on target all night the Gunners were back in the tie.

    The club’s faithful will be hoping Arteta has learned a thing or two after the first leg and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang having returned to the starting lineup at the weekend, he’ll almost certainly start with a striker this time. The captain was on the bench last week but was clearly not fit enough to start. The boss’ lack of faith in Eddie Nketiah or Gabriel Martinelli to lead the line saw him try something completely different, deploying Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine.

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    The experiment failed horribly.

    But in Aubameyang, Arsenal will have a focal point in attack and a potent goal threat. Not only did the decision last week significantly weaken the Gunners in the final third, it also led to Raul Albiol and Pau Torres playing out from the back far too comfortably.

    Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
    Aubameyang was on target for Arsenal during their win at Newcastle on Sunday | Pool/Getty Images

    Elsewhere, the suspension of Dani Ceballos following his red card in the first leg should be the push Arteta needs to restore Granit Xhaka to the midfield. Alongside Partey, the Swiss midfielder is one half of the team’s strongest midfield pairing and continuing to play him at left-back even in the absence of Ceballos would make little sense.

    Samuel Chukwueze proved at various points in the first leg he has the beating of Xhaka, even if it’s just because he is significantly quicker. The winger plays from the right but he is left-footed and tends to cut inside, possibly playing into the hands of a right-footed left-back – sounds confusing, but in theory, it makes sense. Throw Cedric Soares in!

    The decision to disrupt the midfield area in order to plug the hole at left-back has led to the Gunners being ineffective in multiple positions and it’s a call that has seen Arteta receive some strong criticism.

    So Aubameyang will more than likely start at centre forward, but who will play either side of him?

    The enthusiastic Martinelli gave yet another good account of himself at the weekend and brings an energy to the frontline like nobody else at Arteta’s disposal. If the Brazilian was to be overlooked again, he’d be bitterly disappointed and starting to question what he needs to do to earn a run in the team.

    Granit Xhaka, Sean Longstaff
    Granit Xhaka has looked uncomfortable at left-back | Pool/Getty Images

    Pepe has also been impressive recently and both players deserve to start at the Emirates. It would mean dropping Saka, but aside from winning the penalty last week he’s been disappointing in the final third of late. Perhaps he’s a little burnt out.

    Whether Arteta will be bold enough to pick those in form over the players he always places his trust in remains to be seen. His Arsenal future could be dictated by what happens in north London this Thursday because it feels as though the goodwill he earned by guiding the club to FA Cup glory last season may have evaporated.

    He must get it right this time when faced against his predecessor – it’s a season-defining fixture for the Gunners.

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