Mikel Arteta says Arsenal were knocked out of kilter by Villarreal’s early goal but his side’s second half performance, despite going down to 10 men, ensures we’re still alive heading into next week’s semi-final second leg.
The Gunners had a mountain to climb when we fell two goals behind before the half-hour mark but Nicolas Pepe’s penalty, not long after Dani Ceballos had been sent off, halved the deficit and ensures we take a precious away goal back to the Emirates.
Had substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang been a little more composed in stoppage time, Arteta’s side might even have snatched an unlikely draw.
After the way the game played out, the boss admitted he was inclined to accept the 2-1 scoreline.
“Obviously we are disappointed we lost the game because it is not the result that we wanted to take from it,” he told his post-game press conference.
“But after the story of the game we have to take it because we are in the tie, we are alive and, with the circumstances that developed during the game, it put the game and the tie in real danger at some stage.”
Arteta raised eyebrows when he fielded a team without a recognised striker but he said it was his players’ sluggish start rather than his tactics that had them on the back foot.
“It’s the way we prepared for the game,” said the boss. “It’s the decision that I made, thinking that it was the best way to play, but the game was conditioned after four minutes so it was difficult to assess whether it would work or not. Conceding from the set piece as well also changed it and after, we had to approach it in a different way.
He added: “I think the first goal was a big shock. It was almost the first action that they went over the halfway line and they scored a goal, and after that, we were touched, we didn’t expect it, we were touched, we didn’t quite react, and then we conceded the set-piece goal that’s obviously crucial in these ties, and then the team needed a break.
“After that break, we reset, we reorganised, we talked about a few things and then we were a different team in the second half.”
The Villarreal players were noticeably disappointed that they didn’t take their chance to kill off the game. They had several chances following Dani Ceballos’ red card but then lost momentum when Etienne Capoue was also sent off. By the full-time whistle, the Gunners left the field feeling much more confident about the task ahead.
Asked about the mood in the dressing room, Arteta said: “Well, comparing how it was at half time, it’s very different!
“But I said to them we have an opportunity, it’s a big challenge that we have ahead of us, but we have the opportunity to make it, but it has to be now. In the return leg it’s going to be too late, we have to change it right now. If we’re able to do that, we’re going to get here in a completely different position.
“We still had another incident which was the red card and playing with 10 men against this team, and the team went to a different level again and we got the goal.”