One of the darkest days in Arsenal’s history was confirmed after 95 minutes as a weak display full of lethargy saw the side crawl their way to a goalless draw, to conclude four halves of football over two legs that deserved exactly what they got.
The opening 45 minutes was like a training match.
Playing the ball around the back at a tortuously slow pace, Villarreal were able to waltz their way around the pitch without a care in the world, in turn making them confident in their ability to keep a clean sheet on the night.
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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came closest to putting the hosts in front when his half-volley struck the outside of the post, but it didn’t come from any smooth passage of play and instead was merely a kind bounce from a corner kick.
Arsenal had to respond in the second half. They did. For the first time over the tie, they played with energy and speed, flooding the Villarreal box and moving the ball around in fewer touches. Nicolas Pepe flashed an effort wide as the visitors finally looked on the ropes.
Emile Smith Rowe then came within a whisker as his dinked effort flew just beyond the post, but that spell soon died down.
Returning the the tempo of a snail in treacle, Arsenal laboured through the remainder of the game as Villarreal posed a constant threat on the counter attack with Thomas Partey struggling to hold down the midfield on his own.
Still, Aubameyang came closest of all to grabbing a goal when his header struck the inside of the post and into the path of a defender to clear. It was agonisingly close, but would have handed Arsenal passage to a European final they wouldn’t have deserved.
The Stench of Arsenal Fear
Arsenal were scared. Terrified, in fact.
Evidently the scale of the occasion was too much to bear for most of the players, who were shackled by the fear of wrongdoing. Every player took too many touches, each pass a yard or two off target, the runs in behind made without conviction. It wasn’t a side looking to win a European tie, it was one not wanting to lose it.
The wrong mindset for a team needing to score. In many ways, trudging their way to the 80th minute and then throwing the kitchen sink at Villarreal felt like the gameplan. A wholly damaging and poorly executed gameplan that is precisely how you add further layers of doubt to an already crippling mental fragility.
Who sets them up like that? The manager does. Arsenal being scared rests on his shoulders.
Being a coach implies, obviously, that you have to coach ideas into your players. Thought processes. There was no clear thinking on Thursday night.