Arsenal’s Europa League future is in doubt after a 2-1 defeat at Villarreal in the first leg of their semi-final, and Martin Keown has blasted manager Mikel Arteta for his use of Granit Xhaka.
The Switzerland international made his fifth consecutive appearance at left-back at the Estadio de la Ceramica on Thursday, when the Gunners lost 2-1 to a team coached by former boss Unai Emery.
Xhaka, 28, failed to repel Samuel Chukwueze’s early intrusion into his area, which led to Villarreal taking the lead inside five minutes through Manu Trigueros.
He also looked stranded when Raul Albiol headed home Villarreal’s second from a corner after 29 minutes. Nicolas Pepe later converted a penalty to halve Arsenal’s deficit ahead of the second leg.
Keown—who made 398 appearances for Arsenal—didn’t blame the player for his underwhelming display, however, and instead aimed criticism at Arteta during his appearance on BT Sport:
“Keep it simple, you have to have a specialist left-back at this level.
“And that was always going to be a problem as it was against Everton.
“It’s the actions of a player that is not comfortable in that position and it’s the manager that has put him there.
“It’s about the decisions of the manager. It’s not Xhaka’s fault by the way. I do believe he’s the most improved player we have.
“He’s still had a difficult time but to play him at left-back leaves him exposed for me.”
Former England centre-back Keown, 54, cited Bukayo Saka as a potential alternative at left-back, a move that could have made room for Gabriel Martinelli to make a rare start:
“It’s about the manager creating the strongest fist he can as a team with what’s available.
“Saka was picked to play for England in the November World Cup qualifiers as a left-back.
“We know know he’s in the squad as a forward player but that’s how versatile he is so play him at left-back.”
Each team finished with 10 men in Spain after Dani Ceballos was sent off for Arsenal, only for ex-Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Etienne Capoue to receive his marching orders for the hosts.
Both players will miss the reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium next Thursday (May 6), when Arsenal must end a run of five games without a home win if they’re to advance.
Ceballos was preferred to start in a midfield pivot alongside Thomas Partey, though former club captain Xhaka was previously a mainstay in front of the defence.
The team that progresses looks likely to face Manchester United in the Europa League decider after the Red Devils came from behind to demolish AS Roma 6-2 in the home leg of their semi.
Emery—who was sacked as Arsenal manager in November 2019—is targeting his fifth appearance in the tournament’s final. The 49-year-old won the competition three years running at Sevilla (2014-16) before leading the Gunners to a runner-up finish behind Chelsea in 2019.
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