Sloppy in defence and largely without a plan in attack, for long spells this was an Arsenal performance that would have felt rather familiar to Unai Emery. Their former head coach oversaw plenty of these matches during the final months of his reign in north London, and for more than an hour he inflicted another one upon Arsenal in this Europa League semi-final.
With Arsenal trailing by two goals, and reduced to 10 men following the dismissal of Dani Ceballos, it looked as if Emery was about to bring an end to their hopes of turning this season into an unlikely success. The master of the Europa League has a knack for winning these sorts of knockout ties, even if his Villarreal side do not.
Such is the dramatic beauty of European football, though, that these two-legged clashes can swing on just a few pivotal moments. Mikel Arteta’s team regularly veer between disastrous and devastating, sometimes within the same match, and after such a poor start they fought back to score a crucial away goal, out of nothing, in Spain.
Nicolas Pepe’s second-half penalty, won by the brilliance of Bukayo Saka, restored belief to Arsenal and meant that this tie is still there for the taking next week. Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol had scored early for Villarreal but Emery’s team could not build on that advantage, as Etienne Capoue soon joined Ceballos in being shown two yellow cards.
Despite the defeat, the overriding emotion for Arsenal will be relief. They were so poor in the first hour that Villarreal might have run away with it before the visitors had landed their first meaningful blow. “After the way the game developed, you have to take the result,” said Arteta. “If you have to lose, it is probably the best result we could have.”
Perhaps Emery has to take some blame for Villarreal’s failure to put the tie beyond Arsenal’s reach: at half-time he replaced a striker with a defensive midfielder, stripping his team of their momentum.
Arsenal surely cannot play so poorly, for so long, in the second leg. Then again, who knows what this erratic team will produce next? “It is up to us,” said Saka. “It is always up to us. We gave ourselves a chance at the Emirates.”
If anything, Arsenal actually improved after Ceballos had been sent off. When a team reaches such depths on occasions as significant as this, the only way is up. Sometimes that can be a liberating feeling, and it was once again the enthusiasm of youth that helped them to recover, with Saka leading the way.
A word too for Pepe, much-maligned since he joined the club for £72 million during Emery’s tenure. Emery has since said that he wanted Wilfried Zaha instead, so this made for a pointed riposte from Arsenal’s winger. As well as the goal, Pepe was arguably Arsenal’s most dangerous forward throughout.
Arsenal will no doubt pose more of an attacking threat in the second leg, when they should have one of Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or both, fit to start. Aubameyang is still recovering from malaria but he came off the bench at the Estadio de la Ceramica and almost struck a late equaliser in the final minutes.
“Two different halves,” was Arteta’s assessment. “In the second half we started to be us, in the first half there were so many moments when we weren’t. We were not precise with the ball and did not have enough control. In the second half it was completely different.”
Crucially, Arsenal might also have Kieran Tierney available next week. Granit Xhaka once again filled in at left-back, and he was targeted from the off. Emery knows well that Xhaka does not like to be dribbled at, because he saw it so often himself during his time in north London. It was therefore no surprise to see Samuel Chukwueze, Villarreal’s tricky winger, charging down Arsenal’s left flank after five minutes.
Neither Xhaka nor Ceballos were able to make a proper challenge, with the ball ultimately falling to Trigueros. His finish was firm and accurate, scorching past the diving Bernd Leno.
The second came after nearly half an hour had been played, with the Arsenal defence completely motionless from a Villarreal corner. A simple inswinging corner was attacked by Gerard Moreno, and then tapped in by Albiol at the back post.
Despair was setting in, and it got so much worse for Arsenal when Ceballos committed his second foolish challenge and was sent off.
The sense of anger towards the officials was then felt by Villarreal. Saka dribbled into the penalty box, running at the yellow shirts, and went down under a challenge from Trigueros. “How can that be a penalty?’” said Emery. “Var has to intervene.”
Pepe converted and the dynamic changed. Before then, Leno had produced a sensational stop to deny Moreno. Had the Villarreal striker scored, there would have been no way back for Arsenal. Instead, Capoue’s red card made it 10 against 10, and Aubameyang almost struck at the end.
The Arsenal captain could not finish his one clear chance, but there should be more of those next week. “We are alive,” said Arteta. Game on.
Full time, Villarreal 2 Arsenal 1
When Ceballos was sent off with Arsenal trailing 2-0, it felt like they had blown the tie in spectacular fashion.
Instead, a penalty and a red card for Capoue gave them a way back into the game. They may have lost, but they take a potentially crucial away goal back to the Emirates.
Arsenal have a corner and, on as a specialist substitute, Willian finds Chambers who loops a header over the crossbar.
It's a huge chance for Arsenal.
Partey plays in Aubameyang, but Moreno and Rulli combine to deny him a dramatic equaliser.
Villarreal have a free kick and get a menacing ball into the area, but Arsenal scramble it clear.
Aubameyang gets a caution after slipping and flying into Albiol at speed.
We have five minutes of injury time ahead.
Arteta makes his power play
... with Aubameyang on for Saka.
Xhaka is embroiled in a running battle with Chukwueze, dispossessing him twice and then allowing him to run into a dangerous area.
Villarreal ring the changes
As Capoue is carried down the tunnel, Trigueros is hooked for Moi Gomez and Pedraza comes off for Alberto Moreno.
ANOTHER RED CARD!
Capoue slides in recklessly on Saka and will join Ceballos in making an early exit.
There's a long delay, with Capoue coming off worse in the challenge. It looks like he's about to be stretchered off.
GOAL! Villarreal 2 Arsenal 1
Pepe slots one straight down the middle, with Rulli diving to his right.
All of a sudden, Arsenal have a lifeline. If they can hang on, this would be a passable result in the circumstances.
This could be the defining moment for Arsenal.
Saka saunters into the area and is tripped by Trigueros. Pepe steps up...
Chukwueze causes chaos with a clever dribble before setting up Moreno, who cuts inside and forces Leno to make another smart stop.
Foyth seems to have pulled his hamstring in the build-up and, much to Arsenal's relief, he's brought off.
Capoue is booked after catching Pepe with his trailing arm.
Moreno almost gets his goal, but Leno does enough to deny him.
There's only one team which looks likely to score at the moment, and it isn't Arsenal.
Arsenal make a substitution
... can Martinelli save this match?
Arsenal get a corner, it's cleared as far as Smith Rowe and he fires a shot into a mass of yellow shirts.
Holding ends up with the ball and attempts to apply the finish, but there's a reason he plays at centre-back.
Chukwueze finds Trigueros with a lovely no-look pass into the box, but he can only take it wide of the onrushing Leno.
Chukwueze then has a pop himself, but Leno gets down to make the save. Arsenal are wobbling here.
It goes from bad to worse for Arsenal.
Ceballos picks up a second yellow after catching Parejo on the ankle. He protests his innocence, but it's futile.
Smith Rowe shows fantastic skill on the left to get past Foyth and Chukwueze, but the latter eventually dispossesses him.
Arsenal build some momentum going forwards, but nobody seems to want to apply the all-important final touch.
Villarreal win it back and Partey catches Capoue, allowing the hosts to catch their breath.
Ceballos gets a ball into the box and Pau Torres fails to clear, allowing Pepe to snaffle it up.
His shot is blocked and Arsenal get a corner, but Villarreal defend it comfortably.
Villarreal make a change
... with Coquelin coming on for Alcacer. That would suggest Emery is looking to hold what he has.
Foyth on fire
... the Spurs loanee has, without doubt, been the standout player of the first half.
Pepe, Ceballos and makeshift left-back Granit Xhaka have struggled to stop him carrying the ball forwards from deep time and again. Arsenal need to re-establish some semblance of control on that flank or there'll be more of the same after the restart.
Half time, Villarreal 2 Arsenal 0
There's no point sugar coating it: that was a disastrous half of football from Arsenal.
Arteta needs a huge response from his players when they re-emerge after the break. Otherwise, they could be out of this tie.
Ceballos is booked for tripping Foyth as he gallops towards the box.
Alcacer directs his free kick on target, but Leno has it covered and makes a relatively easy save.
Moreno gets in behind and rounds Leno, much to Arsenal's horror, but he runs out of space and can't get a shot away in time.
Odegaard finds Chambers in the box with a dead-ball delivery, only for his teammate to head wide.
Pepe gets in behind Foyth, who catches him just inside the area.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, VAR notices that the ball has brushed Pepe's arm in the build-up. The penalty is overturned and Villarreal have a free kick.
Moreno has a shot from distance which is deflected narrowly wide.
Arsenal are struggling now. They need to regroup, and fast.
GOAL! Villarreal 2 Arsenal 0
Arteta pinpointed Villarreal's set-piece threat before the match, so he'll be particularly disappointed to see Arsenal concede such a soft goal at a corner.
Gerard Moreno is gifted a free header in the middle of the box, which he flicks on to Raul Albiol. He smashes into the back of the net from close range.
Thomas Partey has a punt from distance, but it's off target.
He partially redeems himself moments later by cooly dispossessing Dani Parejo
A good passing move from Arsenal ends with Odegaard teeing up Saka on the right.
He cuts inside and tries to find the far corner, but his shot swerves high and wide.
Arsenal make a break from a corner and Dani Ceballos tries to free the forwards with an ambitious through-ball, but Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli sprints off his line to clear.
Martin Odegaard feeds Bukayo Saka, who sends a curling delivery into the area only to see it headed clear.
It's better from Arsenal, who are probing now. Villarreal have retreated a little bit.
Pepe wrongfoots Foyth in the box and whips in a cross, but it's blocked.
Arsenal switch the play and Calum Chambers picks out Smith Rowe in a good position, but he's let down by an uncharacteristically heavy first touch.
Villarreal are putting serious pressure on Pablo Mari and Rob Holding as they try to play out from the back.
Arsenal seem jittery in possession, which doesn't bode well. They need to settle down and get into the match.
Alfonso Pedraza pings a cross into the box which is deflected dangerously towards Leno, but he gets low and gathers.
GOAL! Villarreal 1 Arsenal 0
Well, it's fair to say that Arsenal haven't made the best start.
Foyth plays in Samuel Chukwueze, who dances into the box from the right and ferries the ball to the feet of Manu Trigueros. He lashes one into the far corner, with Bernd Leno making a hopeless dive all too late.
Emile Smith Rowe plays Pepe through on the left, but he's flagged for a narrow offside.
Contrary to what Arsenal's Twitter feed would have us believe, it appears that Smith Rowe is playing as a sort of false nine with Pepe out wide.
Players in the tunnel
... and the vibrant yellow of Villarreal's home kit is vibing beautifully with Arsenal's dark red tracksuits.
Arteta urges his players to seize the moment
Asked whether he's feeling the pressure in his pre-match interview with BT Sport, Arteta says: "There is excitement, it's why we play football to play these kind of games. We take it as an opportunity and a challenge that we have a good team in front of us, but it's all about excitement.
"It's an opportunity to win a title, but to play a final you have to earn it. We have earned to be in the place we are right now today and to face Villarreal, so let's go for it."
Villarreal are in the mood
... and given that Emery has won the Europa League three times, they have every right to feel confident.
Pepe up top?
It's a big shout from Arteta, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli on the bench.
Emery isn't the only familiar face in the Villarreal set-up this evening, with former Arsenal ankle-nibbler Francis Coquelin on the bench.
Villarreal also boast ex-Tottenham and Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue, whom this particular live blogger once spotted in the Spires Shopping Centre in Barnet, as well as Spurs loanee Juan Foyth. Bundesliga hipsters will also recognise Paco Alcacer, who was an absolute goal machine at Borussia Dortmund for a brief spell.
Arsenal team news
Villarreal team news
Arsenal's season hangs in the balance
When the full-time whistle goes this evening, Mikel Arteta will have a pretty good idea of whether he can salvage something from this season.
Given that their owners were willing to break away from the established structure of European football less than a fortnight ago, it seems vaguely absurd that Arsenal's success is so dependent on the outcome of their Europa League adventure. Nonetheless, as their last hope of Champions League qualification, Arteta and his players know that everything rests on them winning the final.
A familiar foe stands in their way, hair slicked back into a magnificent jet-black mane. Unai Emery, a man who eventually became a figure of fun at the Emirates, has gone some way towards repairing his reputation at Villarreal, who have knocked out Red Bull Salzburg, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb on their way to the semis.
Asked about the reunion with Emery before the match, Arteta said: "Unai knows the club really, really well and we know Unai as well, what he did before he joined here and what he did at the football club and that's it."
As for the threat posed by Villarreal, Arteta said: "In the last 10 or 15 years they've had spectacular progression with various different coaches, but they've always had a clear idea of how they want to play. Unai's brought them a lot of experience in this competition and they have a very clear identity in terms of their play style.
"Obviously it's a two-legged affair and there's obviously always a bit of uncertainty in terms of the first leg, who is going to be more dominant and who is going to take more risks, but we will see.
"I'd say the main thing is the clarity of idea that they have, both with and without the ball, and in transition and set pieces they have very clear ideas and some great connections between the players. They have some fantastic individual players in the final third and they can decide a game at any time.
"They compete throughout the game and they also have an ability to change system using either the same players or different players during a game, and that makes them very difficult to read."
Arteta doesn't have the luxury of misreading Villarreal's intentions. It may only be the first leg but, make no mistake, this game could be make or break.