A Nicolas Pepe penalty-kick goal handed Arsenal an almighty lifeline in their Europa League semifinal as they escaped Villarreal with a 2-1 defeat after a woeful display in the first leg. Both sides were reduced to 10 men in a dramatic clash where first Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos and then Villarreal’s Etienne Capoue were sent off for clumsy tackles in a match not short of drama and basic errors. Unsurprisingly given the difficulties the Gunners have inflicted on themselves on their path to the final four Mikel Arteta’s side made more than their fair share of them with Manu Trigueros thumping home in the fifth minute after poor defending down the visiting team’s left flank.
The defense was all the worse for the second as Villarreal had two un-pressured touches in the Arsenal six-yard box from a corner, Gerard Moreno flicking a corner to Raul Albiol to poke home at the back post.
Arsenal improved somewhat early in the second half but Ceballos, who had already made one foul after being booked, left a boot on Dani Parejo and the Gunners looked to be on the brink of an exit. Yet again it was 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who rose to the most important occasion, winning a penalty that Nicolas Pepe converted to give the visitors a precious away goal that puts them firmly in the hunt for next week’s second leg at the Emirates Stadium.
Villarreal will be without Capoue for that game after the former Tottenham midfielder saw red for a foul on Saka.
With Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang not deemed fit enough to start (the former did not even make the bench), Arteta had something of a headache in terms of who to start upfront. Eddie Nketiah has been out of form, and Gabriel Martinelli has not yet won the manager’s trust as a starter. Still it was curious that the conclusion he came to was to do without a striker.
In possession Arsenal offered a system that seemed to imitate Manchester City’s recent success with a pair of No. 10s instead of a center forward. It is not that that should necessarily be beyond Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe. The problem was they looked like they had never played in that system before. The biggest game of the season seems a curious occasion to test this approach for the first time.
On occasion there was the outline of a plan that might have involved overloading the wide areas and reaching the byline, but to cut it back to who? When City do the system well the answer is two or three players making shrewd moves into space. For Arsenal it was Pau Torres and Raul Albiol.
Meanwhile Pepe offered plenty of attacking punch down the left but he and Dani Ceballos gave minimal support to Granit Xhaka, the repurposed defensive midfielder who Villarreal relentlessly targeted from the first minute.
Unai Emery clearly understood where the weak points would be in his former side. With Granit Xhaka sitting back there was space aplenty for Foyth to drive into and it was through that avenue that the opening goal came, Ceballos offering minimal support as Samuel Chukwueze burst through and the ball squirmed its way to Trigueros. It was clear how Villarreal were planning to build, drawing the press from the Arsenal left then unleashing their attack down that flank thanks to Geronimo Rulli’s excellent distribution.
Curiously for all the difficulties Arsenal were suffering, Arteta did not make any changes, retaining Ceballos despite the yellow card that loomed over him. It came back to haunt him.
Arsenal should probably give Ceballos one more game in their shirt, for symmetry’s sake. Hear me out, his second appearance for the club against Burnley was among his best individual performances of his two years in north London. His performance against Villarreal might rank among his worst. That may seem cruel but this was a performance that might have cost the Gunners the tie on another night.
His defense when Chukwueze drove at him for the opening goal was timid, as the left-sided central midfielder he should have offered more support for Xhaka when Foyth came charging down the wing. Some of his passing into the space in behind Villarreal’s right flank was rather neat and offered something for Pepe to work with but the ball often came to him too slowly. Then there were the fouls, the first yellow card a cynical trip on Foyth that reflected how out of position he had been.
Still Ceballos should not necessarily carry the can for his red. After all there was no malice in his clip on Parejo, he was just too late to the ball. But why he was still on the pitch having committed one more foul early in the second half and when Arsenal needed to make changes anyway? It was a baffling decision from Arteta, one of many from a manager who began the game with an untested system and who has developed a worrying habit of leaving his substitutions rather too late.
That was certainly the case today and the impact that both Gabriel Martinelli and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made off the bench, the latter having Arsenal’s first open-play shot on target in the 94th minute, suggests that Arteta knows which call to make but that he should be making it sooner.
He could do with the decisiveness his team did not show. For Villarreal’s second goal no defender was attacking the corner despite that being what is required from a zonal system. Not for the first time this season, Saka saved Arteta his blushes. The manager will have to show signs of improvement next week.