The Europa League seems to represent the last possible chance for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League next season, and barring some miraculous upturn in form in the league, any European competition at all.
The chance to see former manager Unai Emery in the dugout will likely have piqued most people’s interest, but the sideshow was to take a back seat as Arsenal looked to push forward.
In reality, Arsenal couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start if they had tried. The same lackadaisical defending that so often permeated in Emery’s days at the club were once again exposed.
Granit Xhaka, deputising at left-back, had been relatively untested in the position, but Villarreal began to attack with real gusto. Xhaka pointed to teammate Dani Ceballos to pick up Manuel Trigueros, who found himself free in the box, only for Ceballos to totally ignore the instruction and stare in horror as Trigueros fired a stunning effort into the bottom corner.
A nightmare start that could be easily rectified if Arsenal just kept their heads. But then again, this is Arsenal we’re talking about, a team that doesn’t “keep their heads” and roughly 24 minutes later, poor defending from a corner led to Villarreal doubling their advantage. No one picking up the back-post and the same shambolic defending that had been shown up earlier was again exposed as former Real Madrid defender Raúl Albiol turned in an unencumbered effort.
Nicolas Pépé was brought down for a penalty, but VAR turned the decision over after a handball in the build-up.
Half-time could not come soon enough, with Villarreal looking like they were going to score with every single attack.
The second-half saw a drastic improvement in performance from Arsenal, who began to create more chances and began to keep the ball more. Anyone who saw Arsenal under Emery, knew that his Villarreal side were due the same fate.
But before Arsenal could do much more, their situation went from bad to worse as Dani Ceballos, already on a yellow card, was given a second (somewhat harsh) booking and was dismissed from the field of play. Though former Tottenham and Watford midfielder Étienne Capoue met the same fate later in the game, it was of small comfort, especially when Ceballos should have been withdrawn much earlier.
Bukayo Saka burst into the penalty area and was tripped by goalscorer Manuel Trigueros, to hand Arsenal a lifeline. VAR checked the decision and was upheld, and Pépé, Arsenal’s only bright spot on the night calmly dispatched his penalty. Arsenal fans who were dreading a reverse of the Juan Román Riquelme situation from 2006 were spared that particular indignity.
Arsenal had a chance to draw level in the dying embers of the match as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shot was blocked by Gerónimo Rulli, though the Gabonese hitman had slipped as he shot, which likely didn’t help matters.
The final whistle would have been welcome for both managers, who will leave the Estadio de la Cerámica feeling their team should have done more.
The performance of Dani Ceballos once again sent Arsenal fans into a frenzy as the Spaniard once again cost Arsenal a European tie. His poor marking, terrible zonal play, inability to make basic passes and his subsequent yellow card pretty much made the minds of Mikel Arteta and Edu up that the Spaniard will not be back at Arsenal next season.
His performance was arguably one of the worst, but the decision to keep him on was yet another baffling one. Arteta has met criticism in recent weeks for leaving his substitutions far too late and his game management was again under scrutiny here. Though Arteta told CBS reporter James Benge that he was “planning to take Dani off“, it was still bafflinf that such a poor performance in the first-half hadn’t brought about his removal earlier still.
Emery, for all his faults, knew when to change things and when the tactics weren’t working and was not averse to making halftime subs (as was also shown on Thursday night).
The performance falls squarely on Arteta. It felt, once again, that the Spaniard was too smart for his own good. Poor selection in the draw at home to Fulham, had very much been his downfall and Thursday was no different.
Seeming to take heart from Pep Guardiola’s constant “revolving false-nine” tactic, Arteta decided to start the game without a recognised forward, meaning that Emile Smith Rowe started through the middle, and Nicolas Pépé, the obvious choice, was shunted out wide.
Yet another baffling tactic was why Arteta refused to pick Gabriel Martinelli. Martin Ødegaard having just come back from injury seemed like a poor suit to Arsenal’s gameplan, who needed a far more frenetic press. Though the Norwegian is no stranger to a high press when needed, having only just come back rom injury, he seemed to be a risk not worth taking.
Arsenal have been granted an impossible lifeline in the tie now, but they will need to perform much better than this if they are to stand a chance of reaching the final and given the blistering form of Manchester United on Thursday night and the likelihood of them reaching the final, Arsenal will not hold up if indeed they reach there.
1.) Bernd Leno
21.) Calum Chambers
16.) Rob Holding (c)
22.) Pablo Marí
34.) Granit Xhaka
18.) Thomas Party
8.) Dani Ceballos 🔴
7.) Bukayo Saka (Aubameyang 85’)
11.) Martin Ødegaard (Martinelli 63’)
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Willian 95’)
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Elneny 95’)
33.) Maty Ryan
53.) Arthut Okonkwo
23.) David Luiz
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
2.) Héctor Bellerín
17.) Cédric Soares
25.) Mohamed Elneny
24.) Reiss Nelson
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
30.) Eddie Nketiah
13.) Gerónimo Rulli
8.) Juan Foyth (Pérez Martínez 70’)
3.) Raúl Albiol (c)
4.) Pau Torres
24.) Alfonso Pedraza (Moreno 80’)
11.) Samuel Chukwueze
25.) Étienne Capoue 🔴
5.) Dani Parejo
14.) Manuel Trigueros (Gómez)
7.) Gerard Moreno
17.) Paco Alcácer (Coquelin 45’)
1.) Sergio Asenjo
2.) Mario Gaspar
21.) Jaume Costa
6.) Ramiro Funes Mori
15.) Pervis Estupiñán
18.) Alberto Moreno
30.) Yeremi Pino
19.) Francis Coquelin
32.) Álex Baena
23.) Moi Gómez
34.) Fer Niño
9.) Carlos Bacca