When the full-time whistle blows tonight, Mikel Arteta will have a pretty good idea of whether he can pick up anything from this season.
Given that their owners were set to break away from the established structure of European football less than a fortnight ago, it seems vaguely absurd that Arsenal’s success depends so much on the outcome of their Europa League adventure. Nonetheless, as the last hope of qualifying in the Champions League, Arteta and his players know that everything depends on their victory in the final.
A familiar enemy stands in their way, hair slicked back into a beautiful black mane. Unai Emery, a man who eventually became a fun figure in the Emirates, helped repair his reputation at Villarreal, who knocked out Red Bull Salzburg, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb en route to the semi-finals.
Asked about the reunion with Emery before the game, Arteta said: “Unai really knows the club very well and we also know Unai, what he did before joining here and what he did at the football club and that’s all.”
As for the threat posed by Villarreal, Arteta said: “Over the past 10 or 15 years they’ve seen spectacular progress with different coaches, but they’ve always had a clear idea of how they want to play. Unai theirs. brought a lot of experience to this competition and they have a very clear identity in terms of style of play.
“Obviously it’s a two-legged affair and there’s obviously always a bit of uncertainty in terms of the first leg, who’s going to be more dominant and who’s going to take more risks, but we’ll see.
“I would say that the main thing is the clarity of the idea that they have, with and without the ball, and in the transition and the set pieces, they have very clear ideas and very good relations between the players. They have some fantastic individual players in the final third and they can decide a game at any time.
“They compete against each other throughout the game and they also have the ability to switch systems using either the same or different players during a match, which makes them very difficult to read.”
Arteta doesn’t have the luxury of misinterpreting Villarreal’s intentions. It might just be the first leg, but make no mistake, this game could be decisive.