Mikel Arteta insists Arsenal thought long and hard about sending Joe Willock out for his fruitful loan stint at Newcastle United.

Willock is ineligible to face his parent club when Newcastle host the Gunners at St James' Park on Sunday.

That in itself surely stands as a boost to Arteta, given Willock has come off the bench to score in each of Newcastle's past three Premier League games – strikes worth a total of four points to Steve Bruce's team, who are now nine points clear of the relegation zone with five matches remaining.

Willock is the first player to score on three consecutive substitute appearances in England's top flight since Adam Le Fondre did so for Reading in 2013.

Although his development is a boon to Arteta and others in north London, it is also possible to wonder what a player in such form might have done for an Arsenal side that have won just two of their past nine matches following Thursday's 2-1 Europa League semi-final first leg defeat at Villarreal.

"It was a difficult decision to let him go because we really like the player," Arteta said.

"But he needed more game-time and needed this type of experience.

"He has stepped in at big moments for them and scored some crucial goals so that is really good news because it is great for his development."

Nicolas Pepe might well have scored a crucial goal when it comes to salvaging something from Arsenal's season, having netted to reduce the arrears at El Madrigal from the penalty spot, despite Dani Ceballos being sent off before the hour.

It has been another mixed campaign overall for Arsenal's record signing  but Pepe has netted six times in 12 Europa League appearances, alongside five in 25 Premier League outings.

"I think he's come a long way in the last few months. His work ethic has been phenomenal and he's deciding many more games and doing what he can do in the final third in a much more consistent way," Arteta said,

"So I'm really happy with his performances and now he needs to continue like this.

"Confidence in every player is crucial and every time you step on that field, if they feel secure, if they feel protected, if they feel like they're supported by their manager and their team-mates, it's something that is crucial to be able to perform.

"Then with the things that he could do better, he's doing much better with as well. But it's all a mix that is reflected in his performance."

Arsenal's goal threat would be further enhanced by having Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back to full fitness.

The club captain returned to training this week following a bout of malaria and featured as a late substitute against Villarreal.

"He hasn’t trained much, he is still not at the level in his physique that he should be to start," Arteta said, hinting a place on the bench is again most likely for Aubameyang at Newcastle.

"We will see again how he is. He could only play a few minutes but we managed to get him on the pitch, which is great news for us."

Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta has fiercely defended his team selection after his side's 2-1 Europa League semi-final first leg defeat away to Villarreal on Thursday.

Arteta fielded Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka at left-back while he also started without a recognised striker, with Emile Smith Rowe in the most advanced role and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coming off the bench.

The Gunners went behind 2-0 after half an hour and were reduced to 10 men after Dani Ceballos' 57th minute sending off.

But Arsenal pulled a goal back from Nicolas Pepe's 73rd minute spotkick after Bukayo Saka was tripped inside the box claiming a precious away goal.

"It's the way we prepared for the game," the Spaniard said at the post-game press conference about his selection decisions.

"It's the decision that I made, thinking that it was the best way to play, but the game was conditioned after four minutes so it was difficult to assess whether it would work or not.

"Conceding from the set piece as well also changed it and after, we had to approach it in a different way."

He added: "Obviously when you lose you always get [selection] wrong.

"When we won 4-0 away from home against Slavia Prague, they didn’t lose a home game in three years and Granit played so well, he was incredible playing there but I know that when it doesn’t happen, it’s always going to point there."

Arsenal will host Villarreal in London next Thursday with a spot in the decider on the line, against either Manchester United or Roma, with Arteta delighted with their away goal after their early deficit.

"It changes completely the tie obviously, and it makes a huge difference and we know that we have to be better than we were for 95 minutes," Arteta said.

"If we don’t do that then we won’t have the chance to be in the final."

He added: "After the story of the game, I think we have to take it because in the tie we are alive and in the circumstances that developed during the game, it put the game and the tie in real danger at some stages."

Mikel Arteta accepted a 2-1 defeat was the best outcome Arsenal could have hoped for after a performance of two vastly contrasting halves against Villarreal on Thursday.

The Spanish side will take a slender lead into the second leg of the Europa League semi-final next week, though the margin between the teams could have been far greater at the halfway stage of the contest.

Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol scored as Unai Emery's side threatened to overrun his former employers in the first half, yet the Gunners came out a different side after the interval.

Despite the dismissal of Dani Ceballos, Bukayo Saka won a penalty that Nicolas Pepe converted to cut the deficit in the 73rd minute.

Villarreal then had Etienne Capoue dismissed before the returning Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a chance to equalise in added time, only to be denied by home goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.

"We didn't want to come here and lose, but after the way the game developed, and being 2-0 down with 10 men, you have to take the result," Arteta told BT Sport.

"If you have to lose, this is the best result that we could have. But two different halves."

Asked what had led to the change in his team after the break, he replied: "We started to be us. In the first half, there were so many moments when we weren't us.

"We were disorganised, we started to chase, were not precise enough with the ball nor occupying the right spaces, we didn't have enough control.

"We didn't carry enough threat, or have the right desire to attack the opponents' box. In the second half it was completely different."

Arsenal were indebted to a fine save from goalkeeper Bernd Leno when the score was at 2-0, the German denying Gerard Moreno.

So, while Emery became the first ex-Arsenal boss to beat the Gunners since George Graham's Tottenham side won 2-1 at White Hart Lane in November 1999, the tie is firmly in the balance ahead of the second leg at Emirates Stadium.

Villarreal have progressed from 15 of their 16 two-legged ties in major European competitions when winning the first leg – the only exception coming in the 2015-16 Europa League semi-final, when they went out to Liverpool despite winning the first meeting.

On Leno's save from Moreno, Arteta said: "He was very good when we needed him at 2-0. The chance with Gerard is probably the biggest one they had.

"He saved us, but then at the end we had a big chance with Auba and we weren't able to get it in."

Unai Emery has called on Arsenal to remain faithful in their "perfect marriage" with Mikel Arteta, even though he is aiming to plot his former club's downfall in the Europa League.

Emery has steered Villarreal through to the semi-finals of the competition this season, setting up a clash against the club who sacked him in November 2019.

The Spaniard left Emirates Stadium after 18 months at the helm, the club having won 49 per cent of his 51 Premier League games in charge.

He did lead the Gunners to the Europa League final in his solitary full season in the job – they lost 4-1 to London rivals Chelsea in Baku – and admits a "little corner of his heart" still belongs to Arsenal, as well as the other teams he has coached in his career.

"It is a closed stage and I only have gratitude for having worked there," Emery said of his time at Arsenal.

"It is one more process in my career and I keep the good things that have helped me. Now I am very happy at Villarreal trying to contribute my knowledge, as I did at the time with Arsenal.

"For all the teams I have been at, I have my little corner in my heart for them. But now it is yellow and 100 per cent for this club."

Arteta was appointed as Emery's replacement and while they have done well in Europe in his first full campaign, domestic results have continued to be disappointing.

Arsenal have won just two of their previous eight outings in all competitions ahead of Thursday's game at Estadio de la Ceramica and sit 10th in the English top-flight table, meaning the two-legged tie with Villarreal is crucial to their hopes of securing a return to the Champions League next season.

Still, Arteta's predecessor has made clear the importance of having enough time to turn around the fortunes of a "great club" - something he was not afforded in the role.

"The Premier League is difficult. Arsenal's situation is natural and there were certain circumstances after Wenger's time. We fought for the Champions League and we reached the final of the Europa League," Emery told the media.

"Arteta's work takes time, you have to be patient, trust and sure that the club will find its usual place. That entails time, but I think they will make it."

He added: "You cannot say more than it is a great club, in terms of history and in the present. Arteta has a perfect marriage with the club since he was a beloved player there.

"You see a team with a clear identity, with a very 'Arsenal' idea. There have important players, some with great experience and others who are young players showing quality when given the opportunity.

"We are working to see how to counter them with different plans for the match."

A three-time winner of the competition while in charge of Sevilla, Emery will be aiming to guide Villarreal to a first major European final in the club's history.

However, they have failed to beat Arsenal in four previous meetings in Europe, including in both games of their Champions League semi-final in 2006.

Kieran Tierney is in line to make a surprise comeback in Arsenal's Europa League semi-final first-leg tie at Villarreal, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are also in contention.

Scottish left-back Tierney suffered ligament damage to his left knee in the 3-0 defeat at Liverpool on April 3 and was originally expected to miss between four and six weeks.

Such a timescale would have left Tierney facing the possibility of missing the remainder of the season, but Gunners boss Mikel Arteta provided a much more positive update ahead of Thursday's trip to Villarreal.

"He didn't need the surgery that we were afraid of," said Arteta.

"He's been working like a beast every single day. I don't know if he's going to make it tomorrow, but he certainly wants to be as close as possible."

Captain Aubameyang has not featured since April 8 and had been receiving treatment for malaria, but Arteta confirmed he and Lacazette (hamstring) are in line to feature.

David Luiz has been back in training following a knee issue having been out since March, meaning Arteta has potentially a fully fit squad to choose from.

But the Spaniard insists no risks are being taken in a huge match for Arsenal, for who the Europa League represents their best chance of qualifying for European football next term given they sit 10th in the Premier League.

"We do need them because we know that we have some players that are in contention and they are the ones that can make the difference in a big tie like this," he added.

"But the word risk, I don't like it. I want to put players on the pitch that can perform and feel secure they can perform. If it is a risk or we are going to take a gamble, I don't think it is the right game to do it."

The match against Villarreal sees Arsenal come up against former boss Unai Emery, a coach who won the Europa League three years running with Sevilla and led the Gunners to the 2019 final where they were beaten by Chelsea.

Emery was sacked in December of that year following a downturn in results, though Arteta had nothing but praise for his predecessor.

"I spoke with him before I took the Arsenal job, he was really helpful, very experienced and successful manager," he said.

"I think there is no doubt that he's got the tools and knowledge to manage at the top level."

Mikel Arteta claimed fan protests against Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke did not play on the minds of his players during an 1-0 defeat to Everton on Friday.

Over a thousand Arsenal supporters gathered outside Emirates Stadium to voice their dissent at Kroenke's role in the failed European Super League breakaway project.

Arsenal were one of the 12 founding members of the competition before they withdrew on Tuesday, apologising in an open letter to fans.

Arteta revealed his team had arrived early to avoid the protests, but they produced a meek display on the pitch as Bernd Leno's calamitous own goal handed Everton the points.

It was Arsenal's first Premier League defeat at home to Everton since January 1996, ending a 24-game unbeaten run against the Toffees at the Emirates or Old Trafford.

"No, no," Arteta told a media conference when asked if the defeat could be put down to the protests.

"We knew that was happening and we knew our fans wanted to express our feelings. We made our preparations with that in mind and that's not an excuse

"We got inside the stadium [early]. Obviously, the players know what is happening, they are all connected to social media. We let them know the reasons why they [the fans] were outside.

"I am desperate to have [the fans] back because we really need them. We have a really young team who has to experience the emotion, security and trust when you feel your people really behind you."

Arteta urged Arsenal's board and fans to rebuild their relationship, but did not address questions related to calls for Kroenke to go.

"Well I think it's a relationship that has to come together from both parties," Arteta added.

"Some probably giving some opportunities and the other ones showing that they want to be closer to them. I talk about what my experience is and what my relationship is and how involved they are.

"Now the biggest challenge is to get them in the stadium as quick as possible, and show that passion, togetherness and unity with the team because the team is desperate for them to be closer to us."

The Gunners have now lost seven games on their own turf in the Premier League this season – their most home defeats in a league campaign since 1992-93 (also seven).

They have also failed to score in eight Premier League games at home this season, twice as many as in the previous four campaigns combined.

Arteta described Arsenal's home form as "terrible" and "unacceptable" but criticised a VAR decision to overrule the award of a penalty earlier in the game.

Arsenal were awarded a spot-kick when Dani Ceballos went down in the box after a slight touch from Richarlison, but VAR deemed Nicolas Pepe was in an offside position in the build-up.

"This has been building up. Enough is enough. Today I had enough," Arteta said of the decision.

"We've had many of them that no-one explains. It affects a lot of people, our job and most important our football club."

Arteta added in an interview with Sky Sports: "To disallow a penalty 15 seconds before eight or nine touches [after Nicolas Pepe was offside] – I saw it 10 times and I don't get it.

"It can be taken the way they want. Zero control. Somebody has to explain that.

"We were the better team. We lacked some clear-cut chances and the edge in the final third. They are very well organised but we conceded the goal in the wrong moment and when we had the penalty but it wasn't given."

Mikel Arteta believes Arsenal fans are the soul of the club as the Premier League side seek to rebuild relationships in the aftermath of the European Super League debacle.

Arsenal were one of six English top-flight teams to sign up to the doomed breakaway project, hastily withdrawing alongside all their Premier League counterparts on Tuesday amid a backlash from fans, players, football authorities and even national governments.

Chief executive Vinai Venkatesham and director Josh Kroenke received a severe grilling when attempting to apologise to an Arsenal fans forum this week and protests outside Emirates Stadium are expected to precede Friday's game against Everton.

Arteta, a popular figure during his playing days with the Gunners, insists the fans have the respect of himself and his players after making their voices heard during a tumultuous episode.

"We want to listen to them, we totally respect them. They've been loud and clear and they've been heard," he said.

"They're going to be heard all the time because they are the soul of this football club and the soul of this industry.

"We're going to try to do the best we can to make them proud all the time and make their lives better by playing the way we want to play, winning football matches and trophies.

"That's our responsibility. If they can help in any way it is by giving support to the team because that is going to have an immense effect. It is so powerful and they have to realise that."

If anything, the spectacle of fans congregating outside stadia makes Arteta pine for a return to pre-pandemic normality, describing football behind closed doors as a "different sport".

"I want fans, I want to have that feeling that we are competing and have feeling behind us," he added.

"If not, it is a different sport. Let's get back to where we were before the pandemic and enjoy football in a different way."

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta has applauded fans for killing the proposed European Super League with what he felt was arguably the "strongest message ever sent in the football world", likening the response to a "tsunami".

The Gunners were one of the 12 founding members of the planned Super League, a closed-shop competition that was announced on Sunday after years of speculation.

But the project never got off the ground as, within 48 hours of it being revealed, the plans were left in ruins as the six Premier League clubs pulled out.

Following an almost universal backlash, Manchester City – whose manager Pep Guardiola railed against the general concept – withdrew first, with Chelsea apparently preparing to do so at the same time.

Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham then released simultaneous statements later in the day confirming their disassociation with the tournament, which was set to rival the Champions League but guarantee participation for the founding clubs.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who was set to front the Super League as chairman, has insisted the plans are not dead, but with the English clubs issuing apologies to their supporters, the idea will take some resurrecting.

And Arteta, addressing the media for the first time since the initial announcement, applauded the actions of supporters in forcing the U-turn.

He said: "I think this has given a big lesson. It shows the importance of football in the world, and shows that the soul of this sport belongs to the fans, and that's it.

"We've been trying to sustain this industry with no fans in the pandemic, but when they have to come out and talk, they do so loud and clear and they sent probably the strongest message that has ever been sent in the football world.

"Every club has done the right thing, we have to listen to them [the fans]. In 24 hours they killed the project, it's a massive statement for the history of football.

"I found out just a little before the news was leaked. Then everything was out of control and the world reacted in a really unified manner. There was no time to think or reflect because by the time that was out, a tsunami killed it."

Arsenal were the first to issue an apology to supporters as they published an open letter from the board when their withdrawal was confirmed, while Arteta confirmed all club officials involved have apologised to him and the players.

Asked if an internal apology had been communicated, Arteta said: "Yes, from Vinai [Venkatesham, CEO], the ownership and everyone involved in the process, all of them with the right intentions to defend the club put the club in the best position for now and future, but accepting the way it has been handled has had terrible consequences and that it was a mistake.

"I have to really respect that when people have genuine intentions to do the best thing for the club but if it doesn't happen or isn't the right thing to do, they can stand up and apologise. I think the players and staff, we have to move on. The way it has been handled internally has been very good."

As for communication from the Kroenkes, the family that owns the club, Arteta added: "Absolutely [they apologised], they are the maximum responsible to run the football club.

"They apologised for disturbing the team and not having the capacity or ability to communicate in a different way earlier, explained the reasons why, and passed on the message to the players. That's all you can ask for and I have to accept completely."

It remains to be seen if there will be any punishment for Arsenal and the other clubs involved, as points deductions, fines and Champions League bans have all been mooted.

Arteta feels Arsenal have to be ready to face – and accept – the consequences of their actions.

"I don't know the legal details to respond to that," he said. "When you act, there are always consequences. I don't know the extent of those consequences.

"I think here we have to understand the principle and why those clubs were trying to achieve something, but if it wasn't done in the right way, there are always consequences and we'll have to accept that if there are."

Mikel Arteta insists he knows nothing about Arsenal being involved in a European Super League.

Widespread reports emerged on Sunday claiming that up to 12 clubs – including the Premier League's 'big six' – were set to announce the new competition.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal are said to have been joined by teams from Italy and Spain in backing the plans.

UEFA issued a strong response condemning the apparent proposals, vowing to do everything in its power to block the move, and its statement was co-signed by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), LaLiga, the English Football Association (FA), the Premier League, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Serie A.

European football's governing body also reiterated a threat it has made before, that it would bar clubs from taking part in other competitions, while it also suggested FIFA still plans to ban players from playing at the World Cup if they feature in such a 'Super League'.

Aside from other footballing authorities, the plans have been met with widespread condemnation, but Arteta was not willing to add to the dissenting voices.

Speaking after ninth-placed Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw with relegation-threatened Fulham in the Premier League on Sunday, Arteta said: "I don't know anything about it.

"I don't know. Once I know every detail and I have all the information then I can evaluate and give you my opinion."

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is rumoured to be heading up the new league, while the owners of Liverpool, United and Arsenal are reported to be filling vice-chairman roles.

It has been suggested an announcement from the clubs in question could come as early as 21:30 BST on Sunday.

Eddie Nketiah scored a dramatic late equaliser as Arsenal rescued a 1-1 draw at home to Fulham, who subsequently moved a step closer to relegation.

Scott Parker's side looked to be on course for a first ever win at Arsenal in any competition, but the Gunners spared their blushes – to a certain extent – deep into stoppage time.

Gabriel Martinelli was Arsenal's biggest threat throughout but saw presentable opportunities go begging, while a Dani Ceballos goal was disallowed for a marginal offside spotted by VAR in the first half.

The visitors took the lead against the run of play thanks to a Josh Maja penalty and Arsenal lost Alexandre Lacazette to injury soon after, but what would have ordinarily been a bitter blow seemingly led to the late equaliser, with the Frenchman's replacement clinching a point for Arsenal.

Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is "feeling good" after returning home from two days in hospital with malaria, manager Mikel Arteta has confirmed.

The Gabon striker has been left out of the squad for Arsenal's last two matches and revealed on social media on Thursday that he contracted the virus during the recent international break. 

Aubameyang posted a picture of himself in a hospital bed and wearing a gown, but he has now been discharged and his health is improving.

Speaking at a news conference after Arsenal's 4-0 win over Slavia Prague on Thursday evening, which saw his side through to the Europa League semi-finals 5-1 on aggregate, Arteta said: "We just spoke with him. He's at home, he's fine.

"He had two days in hospital to get the right treatment, but he's feeling good now.

"Everybody has been in contact with him. He's been really supportive with every team-mate through messages and calls.

"He was watching the game like everybody else at Colney. David [Luiz], Martin [Odegaard], Kieran [Tierney]. Everybody who has not been able to be involved.

"It is what it is, these things happen. He travelled to his country and he picked it up and you know that these risks always exist."

Aubameyang has sat out Arsenal's wins over Sheffield United and Slavia, but he started the 3-0 loss to Liverpool on April 3 and was a second-half substitute in last week's first-leg against the Czech champions.

"When he wasn't involved against Sheffield United, two days before he wasn't feeling good, but nobody could expect that was the case," Arteta added.

"They did some more tests and that's when it came up and straight away the doctor realised very quickly what had to be done and they did a great job. He's safe and he's feeling good."

Aubameyang has not scored for Arsenal since the 1-1 draw with Burnley on March 6 in the Premier League - one of 14 goals he has managed in all competitions this season.

Arsenal host Fulham and Everton in their next two Premier League games, before the first leg of their Europa League semi-final with Villarreal on April 29.

Arteta is unsure when Aubameyang will be fit enough to return but is hopeful of having his captain back involved sooner rather than later.

"We'll see how he recovers," Arteta said. "I think he will need a few days to recover from that. He wants to back as soon as possible, that's what he said to me.

"But I don't know. If the treatment is efficient it shouldn't take too long."

Arsenal have won eight, drawn five and lost nine of the 22 Premier League games Aubameyang has started this term, compared to five wins, one draw and three losses in the nine games he has not started.

The Gunners also average more goals per game without Aubameyang in their line-up - 1.8 compared to 1.2 - while their average goals against figure rises from 1.0 to 1.2 when he is not included in the XI.

Mikel Arteta was delighted with Arsenal's clinical victory over Slavia Prague but has warned his side face a tough test against former boss Unai Emery's Villarreal in the Europa League semi-finals.

The Gunners entered Thursday's quarter-final second leg with the tie delicately poised at 1-1, but they produced one of their best displays under Arteta to win 4-0 at Sinobo Stadium and advance 5-1 on aggregate.

Nicolas Pepe added to his first-leg strike by opening the scoring in the Czech capital, setting Arsenal on their way to a straightforward win as an Alexandre Lacazette penalty and long-range Bukayo Saka strike followed inside the first 24 minutes.

Lacazette rounded off the scoring in the second half to confirm a semi-final tie with Villarreal - 3-1 aggregate winners over Dinamo Zagreb - and a reunion with Emery, who was sacked by Arsenal in November 2019 and replaced by Arteta.

Emery has previously won the Europa League three times with Sevilla, while also losing the 2018-19 final against Chelsea during his time at Arsenal, and Arteta is aware of the size of the task now facing his side over two legs.

"It will be really tough and Unai Emery is probably the most successful manager in this competition," he told BT Sport. "There is still a lot to do and things we can improve on, but we have a real desire to improve and be better every day."

Arsenal are effectively relying on the Europa League to salvage their campaign and secure a place in Europe next season, the Gunners sitting ninth in the Premier League with seven games to play.

Arteta was particularly pleased with the way his side responded to having an Emile Smith Rowe goal chalked off at 0-0 on the day as his side held on for back-to-back clean sheets, and a first shutout in eight European games

"We started really well in a convincing way, aggressive in our high press," he said. "We looked a threat all the time. 

"I really like the reaction of the team to the goal being disallowed. We scored some great goals. The clean sheet is important as well, the second one in two games.

"It helped the way we played against Sheffield United. The players were in high confidence, when performances are so high the collective improves. The boys were really at it from the start.

"It is a really important win in a crucial moment. We won in a convincing way, so credit to the players."

Smith Rowe may have been denied a goal by VAR, but he set up Pepe for the opener - his seventh assist in all competitions this season, which is the joint-most of any Arsenal player alongside Willian.

With his strike later in the first half, meanwhile, Saka became Arsenal's joint-top teenage scorer in major European competition, matching the four goals scored by Charlie George and Ray Kennedy.

"For me it's a joy to watch them play to watch them every day in training," Arteta said at his post-match news conference when asked about the young pair's performance. "The passion and the commitment they have for the club is special.

"I'm really happy with all of the players. We came to a tough place to face a team that hasn't lost at home in almost two years.

"I think when we demanded efficiency from them and today is a good example of the efficiency you need in Europe to win matches."

Saka, who now has seven goals to his name in all competitions this season, added to BT Sport: "It shows everyone how exciting we can be. When we play like this it is so amazing to be involved in. 

"We have a chance of going to the final and winning this competition - now it is up to us. We look forward to the next opponent."

Arsenal youngster Folarin Balogun is "very close" to signing a new contract, according to manager Mikel Arteta.

The 19-year-old England youth international had looked likely to leave the Gunners at the end of the season on a free transfer after struggling to break into the senior squad on a regular basis.

However, talks over a new deal appear to have progressed well and Arteta believes the player will commit his future to the north London club.

Speaking on Wednesday, he said: "We are going to make it official when it is official and everything is done, but as I said before, I have always been very positive that he wants to stay at the club. We want him to stay at the club. We are very close."

Balogun has scored 55 goals in 78 appearances for Arsenal in youth-league competition and netted for the senior side in Europa League group-stage wins over Molde and Dundalk.

Arteta now wants to explore why he was considering pursuing his career elsewhere.

"First of all, I have just been trying to understand why he got to the point that he was really thinking about leaving the football club after being raised here and the feelings that he has got towards the club," he said.

"Once you understand the position of him, then [you] try to explain what you want to do, how involved he is going to be in the project and how. Then get the full commitment and support from the club, and [technical director] Edu, who I think has done an incredible job as well."

On the pitch, Arsenal's focus is now on Thursday's Europa League quarter-final second leg against Slavia Prague, who scored an injury-time equaliser to force a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture.

Given they are ninth in the Premier League table, their best hope of returning to Europe next season would appear to be through winning the Europa League this term.

Goalkeeper Bernd Leno admits it is difficult to conceive of a club of Arsenal's size missing out on continental competition entirely.

"You could see after the game how disappointed we've been. But it's still half-time. You could see how big this game was for us, and tomorrow even more," he said.

"When you think about the future without Arsenal in European competition, it doesn't feel right. Our job is to make sure it doesn't come true. Arsenal belong to Europe, and that's our target.

"It's never easy when you change the defence all the time, but it's not an excuse. We have so many games, we have to rotate, we had some injuries. The other teams also changed their defensive line.

"Everybody knows what to do. We have a big squad, good quality. It's not only the defence and the relationship with the goalkeeper; it's the whole team that defends the goal."

Mikel Arteta was waiting to learn the extent of an apparent thigh injury suffered by Bukayo Saka, who limped off during Arsenal's 3-0 win over Sheffield United.

Saka helped set up Arsenal's opener, the first of two goals for Alexandre Lacazette, as they cruised to victory over the Premier League's bottom club.

But the Gunners had cause for concern when rising star Saka came off in evident discomfort, having not been fouled, four days before the second leg of a Europa League quarter-final with Slavia Prague that is all square at 1-1.

Still 10 points adrift of fourth-placed West Ham in the Premier League, Arsenal's Champions League hopes for next season rest on their Europa League campaign and Arteta knows the Gunners can ill-afford any absence for Saka, who played two key passes at Bramall Lane.

Arteta told BT Sport of the injury: "He had some discomfort in his thigh. I don't know what it is. The last thing we need is another attacking midfielder with another issue."

Speaking in his post-match media conference, Arteta added: "I don't know the extent. For Thursday, David [Luiz] and Kieran [Tierney] will be out.

"Emile [Smith-Rowe] and Martin [Odegaard] we don't know yet. Let's see how Bukayo develops in the next few days."

Gabriel Martinelli scored Arsenal's second goal, his first of the season having had his development interrupted by injury issues of his own.

But Arteta is confident Martinelli, 19,  is progressing in the right manner.

"I'm asking you to be patient because we have a lot of 19 and 20-year-old players," said Arteta.

"It's not common and Gabi is on the right path, with the right development. He's got an incredible attitude and talent."

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