Sloppy in defence and largely without a plan in attack, for long spells this was an Arsenal performance that will 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 League semi-final. 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 Arsenal’s 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 in just a few moments.
Mikel Arteta’s team regularly veer between disastrous and devastating, sometimes in 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 on the right wing, 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.
The absence of the injured Kieran Tierney has forced Granit Xhaka to fill in at left-back in recent weeks, and he has largely done so impressively. The better the opposition, though, the harder the task for a midfield player who has never counted mobility as one of his strengths.
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 in the early stages.
Neither Xhaka nor Ceballos were able to make a proper challenge, with the ball ultimately falling to Trigueros inside the box. His finish was firm and accurate, scorching past the diving Bernd Leno.
Arsenal simply could not get going. They were unable to inject any intensity into the game as Villarreal slowed it down and sped it up at will.
Ceballos produced a few neat flashes, and Nicolas Pepe had occasional moments of liveliness on the left wing, but Arteta’s side were clearly missing their usual strikers. It fell to young Emile Smith Rowe to lead the line, as a “false nine”, but he understandably did not look comfortable in such an unfamiliar role.
There were no similar excuses for Arsenal’s defenders, who were completely static when Villarreal scored their second. A simple in-swinging corner was attacked by Gerard Moreno, and then tapped in by Albiol at the back post.
On the touchline, Emery reacted to these goals as exuberantly as ever. That has always been his management style, so this was nothing new, although one imagines he would have taken particular satisfaction in the way his side had stymied the Arsenal attack in those opening exchanges.
Already the feeling was that this was not to be Arsenal’s night, and that sense was strengthened when a penalty, won by Pepe, was rightly overturned because of a handball in the build-up. Without a natural centre-forward, Arsenal weren’t able to pin back the home side’s midfield.
When Arteta’s team did press up the pitch, they soon found themselves being cut open on the counter-attack. Juan Foyth, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, was a menace at right-back, creating a clear chance for Moreno before the break.
The structure was not there for Arsenal and more worrying, perhaps, was that they also seemed to be second to every loose ball. Their only half-chance of the first period fell to Bukayo Saka, who curled over from the edge of the box.
For a few minutes after the break, Arsenal looked as if they could fight back. But then up stepped Ceballos, a player capable of superb moments but also flashes of baffling idiocy.
He can be a superbly effective midfielder but he can also be a liability. Already on a yellow card from the first half, he earned his second by committing another rash challenge in midfield.
His protestations meant nothing, and Arteta’s fury on the touchline said it all. Should Ceballos have even been on the pitch still? It could be argued that he was fortunate not to have been shown a second yellow earlier in the game. Arteta could have reacted earlier, clearly, but he evidently was not expecting his midfielder to play so recklessly.
At this point Arsenal looked like a spent force. But, once again, Saka stepped up when he was needed. The 19-year-old weaved into the Villarreal box, where he was tripped as he ran at the wall of yellow shirts. Pepe strode forward to score his sixth European goal of the season and breathe new life into his team.
Capoue’s subsequent red card changed the dynamic again, with both sides taking it in turns to attack with 10 men. Leno made a superb stop before the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, still recovering from malaria.
He could not finish his one big chance, but there will be more of those next week for Arsenal. Game on.