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Unai Emery outwits Arteta in the first leg, but his own mistakes leave the tie open

Villarreal beat Arsenal in the Europa League Semi-Final first leg.

Unai Emery of Villarreal CF and Mikel Arteta of Arsenal FC... Photo by Xisco Navarro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mikel Arteta came into his first European semi-final match like a blundering idiot. A variety of tactics have proven very successful against Villarreal this season- we certainly aren’t unbeatable, but the least likely way to get a successful result against us is to run a high press and doggone if that’s not exactly what old Mikel tried. Within about half an hour, he found himself down 2-0. The goals, though, came from unlikely places, with Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol chipping in, albeit on the receiving end of great plays from Samu Chukwueze and Gerard Moreno.

Speaking of Samu Chukwueze, while we’re here. Unai Emery has done brilliantly with the winger this season. I certainly thought Samu had been semi-permanently relegated to being a rotation player. His defensive work rate was poor and most of our right back options aren’t quite good enough defensively to cover for him. Emery has addressed this issue in two ways. The first of which is that Samu shows better defensive work rate now than he has at any time I’ve ever seen him. The second is the use of Juan Foyth as a right back. Foyth showed us yesterday that he is capable of marauding runs, especially when the hapless Dani Ceballos is on the pitch, but for the most part the Tottenham loanee just stays home and plays good defense, and that frees up Chukwueze to be devastating.

Bad habits came back to haunt Emery after the break, though. Part of the reason we’ve had so many flippin draws this year in the league is that Unai Emery has this aggravating tendency of trying to close up shop once he feels he has the game secured. In this instance, I understand the impulse to a degree. Being up 2-0 at home in a European match makes the clean sheet the most important thing left, since away goals are so important. That said, trying to close up shop AT HALFTIME by taking off Paco and replacing him with Francis Coquelin is just not assertive enough given the fact that we are better than Arsenal to start with.

I think, though, that Emery would have gotten away with it, if Dani Ceballos hadn’t got a red. I joked during the match that Ceballos going off didn’t change anything, because we basically had a man advantage already with him on the pitch, but Arsenal truly did improve once he came off. I think the reason why is that it forced Arteta to abandon his stupid pressing plan and rely more on speed in transition, which is their main advantage on our back line in the first place.

Eventually, Arsenal got their goal through a penalty call that I don’t exactly love. To make matters worse we also lost Etienne Capoue to a suspension for the second leg, which likely leaves us starting Francis Coquelin in a defensive midfield role in the most important match Villarreal has played in some time. Great.

What will be interesting in the second leg is whether Arteta tries to go back to the press. He needs a goal, so it will be tempting, and if he does I think we’ll get an away goal of our own and nullify their potential advantage there. Unai Emery becomes the first Villarreal manager to win a match against Arsenal, and that in itself should be applauded, but ultimately the second half feels like a missed opportunity to have had a far more emphatic result.