There was enough apprehension for Arsenal given the implications this tie had for their present and future.
That the returning Unai Emery could deliver the fatal blow only increased it.
Arsenal’s underwhelming, inconsistent campaign has left some, with the benefit of hindsight, wondering if Emery can consider himself a little unlucky the way things panned out at the Emirates and questioning the managerial change.
Unai Emery saw Villarreal squeeze past Arsenal in their Europa League semi-final second leg
Emery had a turbulent spell in charge of the Gunners before being sacked in November 2019
Arsenal were eighth when Emery was dismissed in November 2019 but have found themselves floundering even lower recently under Mikel Arteta. This woefully limp exit, when Arsenal performed as if they did not realise exactly what was on the line, will do nothing to silence Arteta’s critics.
But doubting the decision to dispense with Emery would be revising history and also simplistic. Arsenal were on their worst run of form since 1992 as Emery’s reign drew to a close and a defensive mess, their goal getting repeatedly peppered.
The atmosphere at the Emirates was toxic, leaving Emery regularly pleading with the supporters who wanted him gone, trying to strike up a connection that never came. His inability to get his message across was a factor there and with his players.
At times some simply could not understand him and even openly mocked Emery. ‘Good ebening Gunners,’ former playmaker Mesut Ozil tweeted before kick-off, poking fun at Emery by using a phrase that became his trademark during his time in North London.
The fact it was their former employee who knocked them out will sting for the North Londoners
It was an indication of what he was up against, Emery lacking the control required to instil some dressing room discipline and Arsene Wenger’s shoes ultimately proved too big to fill.
It was not all bad though. Some players had no complaints. Others liked how he worked one-on-one, used analysis and explained his demands.
In mitigation Emery wanted a big-money defender and then Wilfried Zaha in his second summer but let the club win those battles in the hope that toeing the line would help him preserve his job.
Emery was first to blood two of Arsenal’s best players this season, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. He missed out on the top four but did reach the 2019 Europa League final.
Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the post twice against the Spanish outfit
In his native Spain, there are no doubts about Emery, a three times Europa League winner with Sevilla. He has the authority, credit and respect at Villarreal that he lacked in London.
Initially Emery showed why as he edged out his successor in the first leg tactical battle before Nicolas Pepe’s penalty gave Arsenal hope.
And other than the two occasions when they needed the help of the post, Emery’s Villarreal had few problems keeping Arsenal at bay in the return. Rather than a second-leg fightback, it was Arsenal’s worst fears which materialised.
And one of Emery’s better nights at the Emirates as he reached yet another Europa League final.