Maybe Unai Emery knew best. He certainly does in the Europa League, where he continued his fine record by bringing Villarreal to their first ever continental final, and left Mikel Arteta looking the novice. Arsenal are out of Europe, and their manager is out of excuses.
The fact they were eliminated by his predecessor’s frantic Villarreal only added to the sense of waste from a season that is now an undeniable failure. One stat beyond this 0-0 sums it up. Arsenal will next season not play European football for the first time in 25 years. It’s not exactly progress. Arteta’s big chance to save the season, and maybe even make it a success, ends in huge disappointment. They needed the leap, and the jolt, from this Europa League run. They got a bizarre performance, that wavered between the flatness that has been all too typical of this season to frantic final scenes. There will now be no meeting with old rivals in Manchester United in the Europa League final, because of a defeat to some old Arsenal personnel at Villarreal. Emery had his revenge, but there was more to it than that - and more problems for his replacement.
The key to this eventual 0-0 was that they just couldn’t find the response required, and Arteta now has to find responses of his own to bigger questions than ever. What might have been had Gabriel Martinelli been used earlier? Should Alex Lacazette have been on earlier? Should Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been brought off? What might have been had his last header gone in? Why - above anything else - did Arsenal start so tepidly?
Given Arsenal’s need for a goal, the stand-offishness to so much of their early play was worse than ever. You’d call it strange, except it has been disappointingly frequent for Arteta’s team. So much of their play is so prosaic, which has been one of the main problems of this season. It was an issue only amplified on this occasion by the tension of the occasion - and the danger of any slip.
Arsenal were aware any away goal conceded could be fatal. It still doesn’t explain the extent to which they sat off. The only opportunities of the first half were two largely speculative efforts from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. One was a superbly-struck low volley that clipped the outside post, the first time the forward did so in the game. The other a hopeful attempt that almost embarrassed Geronimo Rulli, the ball slipping under his legs.
Aubameyang was generally fairly quiet which only emphasised that Arsenal were dependent on some kind of individual inspiration out of nothing - which was what so much of their early play was.
Villarreal were just as bad, although had the excuse of Samuel Chukwueze unfortunately going off injured. Gerard Moreno should have struck early in the second half. He delayed a shot to seemingly try and set himself for the perfect finish, but - just as everyone expected him to smash it home - the Spanish international shot so meekly at Bernd Leno. The occasion was evidently getting to them too. That was a reprieve, but also came from something of a release.
The break had clearly brought bluntness from Arteta. Arsenal immediately went out with a much greater impetus, and were suddenly going closer, and getting closer. Nicolas Pepe volleyed just wide from one chance, before Emile Smith Rowe chipped just wide moments later. It was another illustration of the tension gripping this tie. Villarreal had almost seemed panicked into a sequence of mistakes at the back, which left Rulli on the ground and the ball at Smith-Rowe’s feet. With much of the goal still blocked off, though, the young playmaker tried to pick his spot but curled it just past the post.
Such chances had finally unclogged the game, to the point the nerves were now bringing an openness rather than a suffocating closeness. That was summed up by Leno almost letting Villarreal with one very loose touch as he took a pass. It now felt a particularly open golden-goal extra-time.
Every attack carried the weight of an entire season. Heads were going, as headers somehow weren’t going in. The fact they were getting closer as the game got closer to the final whistle made it even worse.
First, Rob Holding powered an effort just wide from the penalty spot. Next, Aubameyang timed his run and jump to perfection - only for Rulli to somehow push his header onto the post. Villarreal were now struggling - not so much in terms of play, but in terms of their composure. Clearances were hacked at, overhit.
There were still nine minutes of normal time left when they took it into the corner for the first time. Their resolve remained, though.
There was another moment of irony, and symbolism, when the ball was teed up for Hector Bellerin… and Francis Coquelin, of all players, came out of nowhere to block it. It locked it up for Villarreal, and summed up the night.
The desolation of the Arsenal players stood out all the more alongside the elation of the Spanish side. That was just another angle to this. Arsenal were supposed to be part of a Super League, that had little time for clubs with little continental pedigree like Villarreal. This was another timely reminder of what it really meant.
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