Football Features

“We haven’t laid a glove on them, we haven’t gone down fighting” – Five things learned as awful Arsenal limp out of Europa League vs Villarreal

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:51, 6 May 2021

In a miserable night of football, Villarreal held Arsenal to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates, knocking them out of the Europa League 2-1 on aggregate.

The Gunners never really looked like getting themselves back into the tie even though the Yellow Submarine were far from their best. Meanwhile in Rome, Manchester United lost 3-2 but qualified for the Europa League final thanks to their massive 6-2 first-leg win. a

What did we learn?

1. Artetaball dies of indecision

In last season’s FA Cup semi-final against the mighty Manchester City, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal played with astonishing clarity. They sat deep, passed out from the back through lines of City pressure and counter-attacked at pace. It was an incredible performance and they fully deserved their 2-0 win.

One year hence, Arsenal have gone backwards. Against (with all due respect) inferior opposition, the Gunners played with an abysmal lack of direction and ideology. There was no clarity in the way Arsenal played.

Were they dominating possession and playing slow? That’s what their team-selection indicated, but they didn’t really look to dominate the ball and kept pushing forward. In the second-half they played with more speed and drive but had absolutely no control over the game and Thomas Partey was stretched to his limit and had Villarreal countered with a bit more precision they could have won tonight.

Martin Keown and Freddie Ljunberg were unimpressed when discussing the performance post-match. “We looked lost. We haven’t laid a glove on them, we haven’t gone down fighting,” said former Arsenal defender Keown.

The former centre-back made no mistakes as to who was to blame: “It does come from the manager, he gives the tactics at the start; that’s the base for the players to play from. And they looked lost,” Keown said, “Odegaard didn’t know when to press, does he sit back in midfield?”

Freddie Ljungberg agreed with this point, saying: “the back-line of Villarreal had the ball and no one was pressing. You can see something was wrong. It felt a bit passive, they gave Villarreal such a breathing space.”

For his part, Arteta felt the lack of good physical condition was to blame. “We didn’t arrive here in the best moment in top condition like we did last year when we played semi-finals and finals,” said the Spaniard. “To be at our best, and I think over the two legs we weren’t at our best for that reason.”

Arsenal will finish the season trophyless, and there’s worse to come next season. Barring a miracle run to end the 2020/21 Premier League season, then in 2021/22, for the first time since 1995/96, Arsenal will not play European football. 25 years of consistent presence on the continent gone, with nothing close to a real fight.

2. Rulli a massive weak link

It’s strange to say this given that Villarreal did what they had to do at the Emirates, but Geronimo Rulli was just awful. The Argentine goalkeeper is the back-up stopper to Sergio Asenjo but Unai Emery plays him in the Europa League to follow tradition in Spain.

And, well, it very nearly cost him a place in the final.

Rulli was just all over the place. It was clear his defence didn’t trust him by the way in which they would all defend as though he was going to stay on his line and then look baffled when he would come rushing off it. Rulli would flap at everything, he let an Aubameyang shot drop from his hands between his legs, he looked skittish whenever he had to do anything.

It was honestly a miracle Arsenal didn’t score and if Manchester United were watching they will be praying Rulli starts in Gdansk as you’d wager someone like Bruno Fernandes or Edinson Cavani would do a better job at exploiting his obvious weaknesses.

3. Aubameyang unlucky and lacking in support

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been through a lot this season, suffering through Malaria and bad form. And when Arsenal looked to him to be their hero as he was in the 2019 Europa League semi-final or the 2020 FA Cup semi-final and final; he couldn’t produce.

He was perilously close, however. Striking the woodwork twice, once in the first-half and again in the second. A more fortunate roll of the ball and one of those two shots could have crept in.

“They shut him down,” said Freddie Ljungberg after the match. And it’s true that Villarreal starved the striker of service, which is why he had so few shots. That he came so close with almost every chance he had indicates that had the Gunners given him more chances, he could have fired Arsenal to the final just like he did in seasons gone by.

4. Cavani and De Gea prove class is permanent

David de Gea has had a fairly miserable season at Manchester United. He’s not really looked his usual self and has been supplanted in the starting XI by Dean Henderson. But by being relegated to the Europa League keeper he has gotten the chance to, basically, return to form.

De Gea was an absolute brick wall in Rome as the United defence around Harry Maguire crumbled in such a way that if it weren’t for United’s Spanish stopper and his splendid saves then Roma would have actually come from 6-2 down to win. But De Gea kept them at bay and should now get the chance to start for United in a Europa League final (having been on the bench in 2017).

At the other end of the pitch, Edinson Cavani made his case not just for starting the final, but starting on as regular a basis as his fitness and health will allow. The Uruguayan was absolutely colossal, his movement vexed the Roma defence all night and after taking two chances to find his range, he hammered two spectacular goals, one in each half, to give the Red Devils a bit of comfort despite the Roma onslaught. 4 goals and 2 assists across both legs of the semi-final; Cavani is United’s dream striker and they just have to retain him next season.

5. The Unai Emery League vs. The Premier League

The Premier League was really having an amazing few weeks on the continent. Manchester City and Chelsea beat PSG and Real Madrid to book an all-English Champions League final and many expected both Manchester United and Arsenal to join them in making the Europa League final an all-English affair (just like in 2018/19).

Villarreal had other ideas, and put in a decent performance to stifle their disjointed hosts. Unai Emery got his tactics spot-on and had Samu Chukwueze not gone off injured, you imagine Villarreal would have won handily. As is they kept a clean sheet and qualified for the final where Emery can become the first man to win the Europa League four times after already getting the immense satisfaction of eliminating his old club after they sacked him.

In his way is not only Manchester United but the entire Premier League hype machine. The Champions League final is an all-English affair between Manchester City and Chelsea, and the Europa League was meant to follow suit. United did their part and will be in Gdansk, but Unai Emery’s Villarreal torpedoed Arsenal’s hopes and will be out to deny the Premier League a dream double in Europe.

With Unai Emery’s track record, don’t rule them out. After all, as Martin Keown said: “they should almost name it after him, he’s won it so many times.”