Nicolas Pepe’s late goal gives Arsenal hope despite a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Villarreal in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final.
Arsenal’s hopes of securing the Europa League title this season suffered a major blow as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat to Villarreal. Although the away goal could be vital heading into the second leg, they were far from impressive and must improve, in order to stand any chance of progressing.
The north London giants were pinned back early on in the game as Villarreal created a host of attacking opportunities in the final third. They were gifted for their early pressure with a goal, as Manu Trigueros scored the opener within five minutes. Villarreal continued to look comfortable attacking Arsenal, even securing their second through Raul Albiol in the 29th minute.
Arsenal pushed harder in their search for a goal in the second half, even creating a few early opportunities. However, their chances of a comeback were sabotaged when Dani Ceballos earned a second yellow that saw him leave the pitch just before the hour mark. It was a devastating blow for the away side.
The Gunners, though, fought well during the final phase of the game, rightly pulling one back through Nicolas Pepe’s penalty in the 73rd minute. A red card for Etienne Capoue made things more even, but neither side was able to come up with a late goal. Here, at The Hard Tackle, we will run the rule over these two teams and how their players in this first leg semi-final encounter in the UEFA Europa League this midweek.
Bernd Leno: 6.5/10
Bernd Leno fared much better than his recent performances. He did not make any grave errors and notably made an impressive save to deny Gerard Moreno from further extending Villarreal’s lead, which otherwise would have been demoralising for Arsenal. The German could not have done anything to save the two earlier goals, though.
What a stop from Bernd Leno 👏
How important does this save look now… 😤 pic.twitter.com/M6nFpmmxoT
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 29, 2021
Calum Chambers: 6/10
Calum Chambers had a rather ineffective game going forward, as he simply did not have the precision in his crosses. In addition to that, the right-back lacked the technical prowess in his forays down the flanks. He was not one of Arsenal’s worst performers but someone like Hector Bellerin could have been more useful in this game.
Rob Holding: 5/10
Rob Holding had difficulties keeping up with Gerard Moreno, with the Villarreal striker often making incisive runs in behind the backline. He otherwise did make some key tackles and blocks to deny the opposition from extending their lead, but needs to appear much stronger against certain individuals.
Pablo Mari: 4/10
Mikel Arteta’s decision to start with Pablo Mari ahead of Gabriel Magalhaes did not pay off at all, as the Spaniard was awful in offering the defensive support for Holding. He was poor in marking Moreno inside the box for the second goal and overall looked very fragile, at times, out on the left hand side of the central defence.
Granit Xhaka: 4.5/10
Granit Xhaka had a disastrous game at left-back, being completely exposed by Chukuweze, not only for the first goal but also throughout the remainder of the game. He simply was not good enough defensively to keep up with Villarreal’s attacking dynamo, though much of the blame should be put on Arteta for this questionable team selection.
"You have to have a specialist left-back at this level… at any level!"
Martin Keown breaks down the issue of Arsenal using Granit Xhaka as a full-back in Kieran Tierney's absence 😬 pic.twitter.com/d5eDXgBgLk
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 29, 2021
Thomas Partey: 6/10
Thomas Partey had a mixed game in the middle of the park. The midfielder showed his quality in avoiding Villarreal’s second line of press, offering good ball progression by delivering forward passes. Also looked quite composed on the ball, but lacked the incision in his forays into the final third, often coming up with poor attempts on goal.
Dani Ceballos: 2/10
Dani Ceballos was horrendous for Arsenal in midfield. He could not do anything in midfield, often lacking strength and intent as he was easily overrun by the opposition. The Spaniard was also quite rash in his challenges and was rightly sent off just around the hour mark, completely sabotaging Arsenal’s chances of earning a late comeback win.
Bukayo Saka: 6.5/10
Bukayo Saka failed to make any real inroads into the Villarreal defence up until the moment he made an incisive run into the box, drawing players and earning a penalty. It automatically makes him one of the most effective attacking players for Arsenal, which speaks a lot about their display against Unai Emery’s men.
"The way we started was horrible. We can't start a game like that."
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) April 29, 2021
Martin Odegaard: 5/10
Returning to the starting eleven after a brief spell on the sidelines, Martin Odegaard struggled to impact the game. He looked passive in regards to his passing, failing to offer any real creativity in the final third. The Norwegian international was eventually subbed off around the hour-mark, in favour of Gabriel Martinelli.
Emile Smith Rowe: 6/10
Emile Smith Rowe was asked to operate as a false nine in light of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette’s fitness woes while Eddie Nketiah was not trusted. The youngster worked hard in regards to his movements, but was not able to come up with any magical moment in the final third.
Nicolas Pepe: 7/10
Nicolas Pepe was certainly the biggest threat for the Villarreal defence in this game. He made life difficult for Juan Foyth on the flanks with his pace and trickery, keeping the Argentine guessing throughout the game. The former Lille winger impressed most with his composed penalty to pull one back for Arsenal, giving them a vital away goal that could play a major role in deciding the outcome of this tie.
Nicolas Pépé has been directly involved in more Europa League goals this season than any other player:
👕 12 games
⚽ 6 goals
🅰️ 4 assists
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) April 29, 2021
Gabriel Martinelli: 6.5/10
Gabriel Martinelli fared well after being introduced around the hour mark. He added more tenacity and pace in the number nine role, making Arsenal much more effective going forward.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: N/A
A late replacement for Saka, Aubameyang was given a late chance to seal the equaliser but his effort was saved by Geronimo Rulli. Did not play enough to warrant a rating.
A late replacement for Pepe. Did not play enough to warrant a rating.
Mohamed Elneny: N/A
A late replacement for Smith Rowe. Did not play enough to warrant a rating.