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Arsenal and Mikel Arteta fail to learn lessons as they exit Europa League to Unai Emery's Villarreal

Arsenal were held to a goalless draw by Villarreal, consigning them to a 2-1 aggregate defeat in the Europa League semi-final and denying them a chance to save their season; Mikel Arteta is under mounting pressure from supporters

Arsenal v Villarreal - UEFA Europa League - Semi Final - Second Leg - Emirates Stadium
Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gestures during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: Thursday May 6, 2021.
Image: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang only had 14 touches during the game

Mikel Arteta bemoaned Arsenal's bad luck in his post-match press conference. The injury to Granit Xhaka in the warm-up. The two Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang efforts that struck the post.

But there is only so much that can be put down to bad luck. Arsenal bowed out of the Europa League having only mustered one shot on target, at home, in a semi-final they had to win. Their season is effectively over. And it is precisely what they deserve.

Arsenal are just fortunate the fans protesting Stan Kroenke's ownership outside the Emirates Stadium before the game were not inside to watch it. The wild Villarreal celebrations that greeted the final whistle would have been drowned out by boos.

Nicolas Pepe's penalty in Spain last week had given Arsenal a lifeline in the tie - albeit one they scarcely deserved. Arteta said they "had so much enthusiasm and desire" to go on and reach the final. But there was little evidence of that out on the pitch.

Instead, Arsenal's under-performing players produced another display to highlight the need for a rebuild but the pressure is rising on Arteta too. He loaded his team with attackers as he sought to overturn the 2-1 deficit but it seemed the plan ended there.

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Mikel Arteta admits his players are devastated by the defeat

As in the first leg, the Gunners looked disjointed and off the pace from the start, misplacing simple passes as they attempted to build from the back and showing the same lack of composure further forward.

The returning Aubameyang provided a reminder of just how dangerous he can be when struck a diagonal shot against the outside of the post a few minutes before half-time, but he was otherwise starved of service.

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Remarkably, he only had seven touches in the opening 45 minutes.

Arsenal could not get anything going around him but they had even bigger problems out of possession. There was occasional pressing but never any cohesion to it.

Every time they attempted to pin Villarreal back, they left huge gaps in midfield, where Thomas Partey was left trying to do the job of two men.

Villarreal, meanwhile, were everything Arsenal weren't. Organised. Disciplined. Aggressive. One team knew what they were doing and one didn't. It is all the more galling for Arsenal fans, of course, given the identity of the man in the away dugout.

Contrasting emotions at the final whistle as Villarreal seal victory over Arsenal in the Europa League
Image: Villarreal players celebrate their victory

Arteta's decisions will be questioned and rightly so. Xhaka's injury was an unfortunate blow but given he was going to play left-back anyway, it does not explain why Arsenal's midfield - if indeed you can call it a midfield - failed to function so spectacularly.

The £45m Partey was supposed to be a solution in that area but he looks more like part of the problem now. His performance was erratic - and not for the first time this season - but it is not easy to shine when you are left so exposed by the players in front of you.

Arteta was punished for experimenting with his line-up in the first leg when he deployed Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine, and he fell into the same trap back at the Emirates.

A midfield of Smith Rowe and Odegaard in front of Partey had never been tried before. Hardly surprising, then, that it did not work.

Arteta's options were depleted by the absence of Dani Ceballos, of course, but that was only because he himself failed to substitute him before his entirely predictable sending off in the first leg.

Elsewhere, Kieran Tierney battled valiantly at left-back despite a clear lack of match fitness, while Hector Bellerin looked uncomfortable throughout having been preferred to Calum Chambers at right-back. Arteta still seems unsure of his favoured defensive line-up. The instability is unhelpful.

Mikel Arteta
Image: Arteta gives instructions to his players

His changes invited scrutiny and so did his hesitance during the game. Arsenal muddled their way through to half-time having at least avoided conceding but, as in the first leg, and despite another rudderless display, the manager opted against making changes.

There were flashes of improvement early in the second half as Nicolas Pepe and Smith Rowe shot wide in the space of a few minutes but soon enough the same issues were apparent again.

Partey remained on his own in midfield despite clearly needing help - Mohamed Elneny never even made it off the bench - while Aubameyang remained isolated up front.

The 31-year-old struck the woodwork for a second time when his late header bounced off the inside of the post but by the time he was substituted in the 80th minute, his touch count had only risen to 14. The service did not improve.

Arteta finally made a change in the 65th minute, when Gabriel Martinelli replaced Odegaard, but by then heads already appeared to be dropping. At one point, Hector Bellerin could be heard screaming at his team-mates to show some urgency and raise their game. It was an isolated occurrence.

Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, left, and Villareal's Francis Coquelin challenge for the ball during the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Arsenal and Villarreal at the Emirates stadium in London, England, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Villarreal, by contrast, were vocal throughout. The players on the pitch and the coaching staff and substitutes on the sidelines too. There were constant shouts of encouragement and screams of protest every time a yellow-shirted player went to ground.

They conveyed a sense of togetherness that wasn't apparent from the home side.

Alexander Lacazette, Willian and Eddie Nketiah followed Martinelli onto the pitch during the closing stages but it was too little too late for Arsenal. There were half-chances but Villarreal were not meaningfully tested and the solitary shot on target proved it.

Quite what it all means for Arteta remains to be seen.

The club have backed him whole-heartedly, even promoting him from head coach to manager after last year's FA Cup triumph, and there is little to suggest they are about to make a change now.

But it has been another dismal campaign and there will be no cup triumph to save it. Arteta was brought in to close the gap to the top four but Arsenal have fallen further away than ever.

They are facing a fifth consecutive season out of the Champions League and barring a dramatic turnaround in the Premier League, they will not have the Europa League to fall back on either.

Villarreal players celebrate their Europa League victory over Arsenal
Image: Villarreal players celebrate their Europa League victory over Arsenal

A first season without European football in 25 years beckons.

An immensely difficult rebuild becomes even tougher without the financial rewards of European qualification and for all Arteta's undoubted promise as a coach, Arsenal supporters are entitled to wonder whether he is the man to oversee it.

The circumstances have been hugely challenging but Arsenal finished eighth last season and they are currently positioned even lower having played a game more than the teams above them.

Bad luck only goes some of the way to explaining how they got here. Arteta and his players have their work cut out to restore belief among supporters - and the 'Kroenke out' protests before the game were a reminder that they are not the only ones.

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