That could have been worse. Arsenal trailed Villarreal 2-0 at halftime. Dani Ceballos got sent off 5 minutes into the half. The tie could have been done and dusted before kickoff at the Emirates next Thursday. And yet somehow, despite playing an atrocious game of football, Arsenal are headed back to London only down 2-1 with an away goal in their back pocket. All things considered, an okay outcome.
Arsenal were particularly poor in the first half. It was mostly possession without purpose, and Villarreal looked the more dangerous side with their quick, direct attacking style. As it turns out, not having either first choice striker, a proper fullback on either side, and Dani Ceballos being the primary ball-carrier through the midfield isn’t great.
The first goal was a bit unlucky — the ball fell to Villarreal feet twice after having been knocked away by an Arsenal defender. It was also pretty poor defending from the combination of Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka. And Bernd Leno really needs to do better. I don’t love to fault keepers for not saving shots from good areas like that one, but he reacted late and the ball really wasn’t all that far from him. He’s in a dreadful run of form. To his credit, he made a big save in the second half to keep it from getting to 3-0.
The second goal was just poor. The ball never should have been down the Arsenal end to begin with. Thomas Partey gave it back to Villarreal with one of his far-too-common moonball shots. Fair play to him, he won it back only for Dani Ceballos to give it away. But still, he’s got to either improve his shooting from distance or stop doing it. Fast forward to the Villarreal corner: Rob Holding hardly goes up for the header and loses it cleanly, Partey loses his man at the back post, 2-0.
And Dani Ceballos wasn’t finished with his awful day. After picking up a booking for hauling down Juan Foyth, who absolutely roasted him all match, he (maybe) got away with a flailing challenge to open up the second half. A few minutes later, he picked up his second yellow (on an absurdly soft call, mind you) to reduce Arsenal to 10-men. I’d be fine if he doesn’t play another competitive minute for the club, especially after saying in the media that he doesn’t want to be at Arsenal next season.
And while I question Mikel Arteta’s wisdom in playing a guy who said something like that to begin with, I don’t fault him for leaving Ceballos on the pitch to start the second half. It’s clear that Arteta does not like making changes to start the half. It’s reasonable to expect a professional footballer to play in a manner so as not to pick up a second yellow. Players do it all the time. According to Arsenal journo James Benge, Mikel Arteta was planning to take Ceballos off for Gabriel Martinelli after his wild challenge to open the second half but couldn’t get him off in time.
Speaking of substitutions and Martinelli, the Brazilian was anonymous today, whether that was his own fault or match effects I’m not sure. But perhaps his being a non-factor sheds light on why Mikel Arteta has seemed hesitant to deploy him and hasn’t started him.
Arsenal got their critical away goal through Bukayo Saka “creating” a penalty. For me, it was clearly a foul — there absolutely was contact by the defender on Saka’s leg as he tried to wriggle through three guys. But it was also masterfully orchestrated by Saka — he adjusted his body to ensure that the contact happened.
Nicolas Pépé, arguably Arsenal’s best penalty taker (next to Alexandre Lacazette) converted the penalty. Pépé has the most goal involvements (10) of any Arsenal player in the Europa League. He can sometimes drift in and out of matches, but he’s consistently dangerous and has been for several months. He needs to be on the pitch.
After the match, Mikel Arteta observed that his side didn’t have “enough desire to attack the box.” I observed as much throughout the 90 minutes — several times when Arsenal got a player on the ball in the box, that player turned to pass backwards, out of the box, to a teammate. Good things happen when you drive at defenders in the area. You force them to commit to a challenge. You can beat them. They could foul you. You make the referee make a decision. Arsenal need to do that more often.
The away goal gives the Gunners a good chance to advance from the tie. If you can’t win a match at home and not concede (or score 3), you don’t deserve to be in a final. On top of that, Arsenal are getting healthier and may have Kieran Tierney, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and David Luiz available for selection next Thursday. Villarreal will be without Etienne Capoue and probably Juan Foyth.
Hopefully things don’t go the way that we’ve been conditioned to expect as Gooners.