Sloppy in defence and largely without a plan
in attack, for long spells this was an
Arsenal performance that would have felt
rather familiar to Unai Emery. Their former
head coach oversaw plenty of these matches
during the final months of his reign in north
London, and for more than an hour he inflicted
another one upon Arsenal in this Europa
With Arsenal trailing by two goals, and
reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of
Dani Ceballos, it looked as if Emery was about
to bring an end to their hopes of turning this
season into an unlikely success. The master of
the Europa League has a knack for winning
these sorts of knockout ties, even if his
Villarreal side do not.
Such is the dramatic beauty of European
football, though, that these two-legged clashes
can swing on just a few pivotal moments. Mikel
Arteta’s team regularly veer between
disastrous and devastating, sometimes within
the same match, and after such a poor start
they fought back to score a crucial away goal,
out of nothing, in Spain.
Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty, won by the
brilliance of Bukayo Saka, restored belief to
Arsenal and meant that this tie is still there for
the taking next week. Manu Trigueros and Raul
Albiol had scored early for Villarreal but
Emery’s team could not build on that
advantage, as Etienne Capoue soon joined
Ceballos in being shown two yellow cards.
Despite the defeat, the overriding emotion for
Arsenal will be relief. They were so poor in the
first hour that Villarreal might have run away
with it before the visitors had landed their first
meaningful blow. “After the way the game
developed, you have to take the result,” said
Arteta. “If you have to lose, it is probably the
best result we could have.”
Perhaps Emery has to take some blame for
Villarreal’s failure to put the tie beyond
Arsenal’s reach: at half-time he replaced a
striker with a defensive midfielder, stripping
his team of their momentum.
surely cannot play so poorly, for so
long, in the second leg. Then again, who knows
what this erratic team will produce next? “It is
up to us,” said Saka. “It is always up to us. We
gave ourselves a chance at the Emirates.”
If anything, Arsenal actually improved after
Ceballos had been sent off. When a team
reaches such depths on occasions as significant
as this, the only way is up. Sometimes that can
be a liberating feeling, and it was once again
the enthusiasm of youth that helped them to
recover, with Saka leading the way.
A word too for Pepe, much-maligned since he
joined the club for £72 million during Emery’s
tenure. Emery has since said that he wanted
Wilfried Zaha instead, so this made for a
pointed riposte from Arsenal’s winger. As well
as the goal, Pepe was arguably Arsenal’s most
dangerous forward throughout.
Arsenal will no doubt pose more of an
attacking threat in the second leg, when they
should have one of Alexandre Lacazette or
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or both, fit to
start. Aubameyang is still recovering from
malaria but he came off the bench at the
Estadio de la Ceramica and almost struck a late
equaliser in the final minutes.
“Two different halves,” was Arteta’s
assessment. “In the second half we started to
be us, in the first half there were so many
moments when we weren’t. We were not
precise with the ball and did not have enough
control. In the second half it was completely
Crucially, Arsenal might also have Kieran
Tierney available next week. Granit Xhaka once
again filled in at left-back, and he was targeted
from the off. Emery knows well that Xhaka
does not like to be dribbled at, because he saw
it so often himself during his time in north
London. It was therefore no surprise to see
Samuel Chukwueze, Villarreal’s tricky winger,
charging down Arsenal’s left flank after five
Neither Xhaka nor Ceballos were able to make
a proper challenge, with the ball ultimately
falling to Trigueros. His finish was firm and
accurate, scorching past the diving Bernd Leno.
The second came after nearly half an hour had
been played, with the Arsenal defence
completely motionless from a Villarreal corner.
A simple inswinging corner was attacked by
Gerard Moreno, and then tapped in by Albiol at
the back post.
Despair was setting in, and it got so much
worse for Arsenal when Ceballos committed his
second foolish challenge and was sent off.
The sense of anger towards the officials was
then felt by Villarreal. Saka dribbled into the
penalty box, running at the yellow shirts, and
went down under a challenge from Trigueros.
“How can that be a penalty?’” said Emery. “Var
has to intervene.”
Pepe converted and the dynamic changed.
Before then, Leno had produced a sensational
stop to deny Moreno. Had the Villarreal striker
scored, there would have been no way back for
Arsenal. Instead, Capoue’s red card made it 10
against 10, and Aubameyang almost struck at
The Arsenal captain could not finish his one
clear chance, but there should be more of
those next week. “We are alive,” said Arteta.