Football as drama.
The cracks which were glazed over in recent games turned into a chasm in the Estadio de Ceramica. But then Arsenal’s other side was stimulated into action with resilience forthcoming.
It is a habit now that Arsenal have to create difficulty for themselves to kick-start performances.
Arteta picked ten out of the eleven in Prague, minus Lacazette, with Odergaard in. Smith Rowe played in a false nine, in a risky move, mirroring the way Pep Guardiola is playing. It was a young team. It needed a nine, and more experience.
This was an important match strategically. Could the man the Arsenal board sacked around 18 months ago, get one over on the one they had put their faith in?
Villarreal are still seeking their first European trophy. They have been to four European semi-finals and lost them all. The champions League semi-final defeat against Arsenal in 2006, still rankles. Supporters outside had placards saying VENGANZA (REVENGE). Only one English team has won here – Man City. Nobody has beaten Villareal in the Europa League this season.
Strange that both Spurs connected players, Foyth (current) and Capou (former) – both did hamstrings. Morena was a latent danger. They played a 4-4-2 with Coquelin in reserve.
The referee was trigger happy.
In the first half Emery embarrassed Arteta by finding weaknesses.
Ceballos had a tricky half. Foyth was the secret weapon driving from the back. He beat Ceballos three times on runs from midfield. Feint echoes of Nayim from the half-way line. And at times Partey was left alone facing counter attacks with Ceballos too far forward. His yellow card was a precursor of what was to come.
Emery, who knows Xhaka’s game inside out told tricky winger Chukwueze to get at him – and soon enough, the ball broke off the Swiss via Ceballos for Trigueros to fire low into the corner of the net.
Arteta switched Smith Rowe to the left and Pepe to the centre.
Arsenal controlled it more.
A good Arsenal move ended with Saka taking it inside but firing over. Then another ended with Partey ballooning a shot over the bar.
On 30 minutes, Moreno got a free header in six-yard box after clever blocking off by Capoue on Mari and headed on for 35-year-old Albiol to tap home.
Arsenal looked to be suffering. The best chance – an Odergaard free kick was headed wide by Holding.
At half-time, Alcacer went off for Coquelin.
Pepe had a chance from a rebound which was blocked. Ceballos stepped on Parejo’s foot from a loose Pepe pass. He didn’t break his stride rhythm – and in the Premiership, he would have got away with it. But in Europe, laws are interpreted differently, and a second yellow saw him depart.
Albiol deliberately knocked Smith Rowe on the knee – a far more dangerous challenge, which wasn’t carded.
Martinelli came on for Odergaard on 62.
Coquelin found Moreno in the Arsenal six-yard box and he fired it straight at Leno who tipped it over. Turning point?
Saka jinked into the Villarreal area and hung out a left leg and was fouled by Trigueoros. Pepe kept his cool and slotted it down the middle, no doubt reminded of Emery’s reluctance to sign him over Zaha.
Capoue, already on a yellow, came in too fast in a tackle on Saka and managed the spectacular double feat of pulling a hamstring and getting sent off in one movement.
Auabameyang came on in the centre for Saka with Pepe moving sides and he had a chance set up by Partey, but he slipped and fired straight at Rulli.
After the game, Saka said: “There are a lot of positives. At the start we didn’t create, we were passive. In the second half we scored and gave ourselves a chance.”
“The dynamic changed. With ten men we were dominating. When we play properly, we can beat anybody.”
Mikel Arteta said: “We didn’t want to lose, but after the way game developed it was the best result in circumstances. The first half was not us. We were not precise, not enough control, not enough threat.
“We are used to Saka’s performances this season. We needed a moment of magic and he produced it. Leno saved us.
“I’m confident We have a chance to win.”
Villarreal: 13Rulli, 8Foyth (Substituted for Pérez Martínez at 70’minutes), 3Albiol, 4Torres (Booked at 37mins), 24Pedraza (Substituted for Moreno at 80’minutes), 11Chukwueze, 25Capoue (Booked at 80mins),5Parejo, 14Trigueros Muñoz (Substituted for Gómez Bardonado at 81’minutes), 7Moreno 17Alcácer (Substituted for Coquelin at 45’minutes)
Arsenal: 1Leno, 21Chambers, 16Holding, 22Marí, 34Xhaka, 18ParteyB (Booked at 57mins), 8Ceballos (Booked at 57mins), 7Saka (Substituted for Aubameyang at 85’minutes, Booked at 90mins), 11Ødegaard (Substituted for Martinelli at 63’minutes), 19Pépé (Substituted for Willian at 90+5’minutes), 32Smith Rowe (Substituted for Elneny at 90+5’minutes)