Result: Arsenal 0–0 Villarreal
Competition: Europa League
Date: 6 May April 2021
Venue: Emirates Stadium
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Mari, Xhaka, Partey, Saka, Smith Rowe, Odegaard, Pepe, Aubameyang
Subs: Ryan, Okonkwo, Tierney, Gabriel, Cedric, Chambers, Willian, Nelson, Lacazette, Nketiah, Martinelli
Arsenal’s Champions League exile will continue for at least another year after Mikel Arteta’s side limped out of the Europa League following a 0-0 draw with Villarreal.
Needing a goal to make the Spaniards sweat, the Gunners produced a horribly limp performance from start to finish. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did hit the post in either half but his contribution aside, we rarely troubled the visitors.
With little chance of qualifying for Europa via our position in the Premier League, an inquest will now begin into how this season has petered out quite so badly. Where we go next is anyone’s guess.
When the lineups were announced, the big question was whether Bukayo Saka or Granit Xhaka would be starting at left-back. The argument was moot when the Swiss picked up a knock in the warm-up meaning Kieran Tierney, just back from a knee injury, was asked to make his first start at short notice. The Scot lined up in defence alongside Pablo Mari, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin. In midfield, Thomas Partey sat deep with Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard ahead of him. Saka started on the right flank, Pepe on the left and Aubameyang led the line. On the bench, the likes of Martinelli, Lacazette and Nketiahoffered potential fire power should we need them.
A fast start would have been nice. We got the opposite. Our players looked paralysed by nerves and far more concerned about the runs of their opposite numbers rather than taking the game to the visitors. Villarreal, with a lead to defend, weren’t overly fussed about making in-roads into the final third either. It made for a very cagey affair.
Aside from an effort by Nigerian winger Chukwueze, who cut in off the right flank to test Leno with a curler, shots were few and far between.
Just keeping the ball in the Villarreal half was a struggle for the men in red. It looked like we might get joy arrowing diagonal balls over the Villarreal right-back but whenever Bellerin and Saka and Pepe made any progress they were soon shut down. When Tierney pushed forward on the other flank, we opened ourselves up to the counter.
After Parejo came close with a free-kick that clipped the top of the net on its way over, the Gunners briefly threatened to improve.
First Tierney fired wide with a sighter from 20-yards before Auba clipped the post with a fizzing volley after a half-cleared corner was returned into the box and eventually fell to him. In a half of very few chances, it proved to be our best.
Our captain did have one further effort before the break. Given the ball by Smith Rowe, who looked to inject some pace, he stepped off the left and tried a trademark curler. It was a tame effort although that didn’t stop keeper Rulli nearly making a hash of things. The ball spilt from his arms and he had to gather at the second attempt.
Emery was forced into an early change when Chukwueze went down with nobody near him but it didn’t affect the visitors’ game plan, which was to indulge Arsenal in boring the socks off everyone.
Time to go for it, Arsenal. Within a minute of the restart, Pepe crashed a left foot volley just wide after Tierney had scooped a lovely pass over a defender to find him in the box.
Two minutes later, a second golden chance. Rulli fumbled a Bellerin cross and when the ball fell to Smith Rowe he tried to dink a finish into the far corner. It dropped wide.
At the other end, Moreno tested Leno after Partey got caught dawdling not far from his own box. It was a big let off. The Ghanaian lost the ball in a dangerous area a second time a couple of minutes later. He looked completely off the pace.
Villarreal did everything they could to slow the tempo down. They took an age over set pieces and were very happy to see two Arsenal players go down at the same time just on the hour-mark. Odegaard took a heavy touch and rolled his ankle before Pablo Mari also went down as we tried to defend the resulting counter. The Norwegian was soon replaced by Gabriel Martinelli.
It was hard to see where a goal would come from. Our football was horribly lethargic and it said something that Holding had our best chances, twice heading over. Martinelli added to the frustration when he scuffed wide as a corner fell to him.
Finally, a chance of real quality. Pepe fed Bellerin who looped a perfect cross to Auba who headed against the post. It was his last action of the game. Lacazette came on for the final 10 minutes and immediately gave away a foul on Albiol as he contested for a Smith Rowe cross. Willian also replaced Tierney meaning Saka went to left-back.
With time ticking out we looked increasingly desperate in attack. A lack of precision in our passing and an inability to get men in the box made for a bad combination. A yellow wall kept us at bay with ease. Almost every fifty-fifty challenge resulted in a Villarreal free-kick. Five minutes of stoppage time was eaten up. Game over.
There will be no European final. No trip to Gdansk. No chance of Champions League football. Our downward spiral as a club continues.