Mikel Arteta has claimed he did not have time to substitute Dani Ceballos as the Arsenal midfielder walked on a disciplinary tightrope despite the Spaniard going 11 minutes between his second foul and the third, for which he would receive his marching orders.
Ceballos had been booked in the first half for a trip on Juan Foyth as the Villarreal defender burst past him in the Spanish side's 2-1 win over Arsenal in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal. Moments into the second half referee Artur Soares Dias gave Villarreal a free-kick for a foul on Dani Parejo, leaving the Gunners midfielder on the brink of a sending off that came with another foul on the same opponent, Ceballos guilty of treading on his opponent's outstretched ankle.
Real Madrid loanee Ceballos had struggled in more facets of the game than just his fouls, consistently leaving space in behind him for Villarreal to attack and offering minimal resistance to Samuel Chukwueze in the build-up to the game's opening goal scored by Manu Trigueros after four minutes. Arteta insisted there simply was not an occasion when he could replace his struggling midfielder with substitute Gabriel Martinelli.
"I haven't seen the [red card] action again," Arteta said in his post-match press conference. "Obviously we talked at halftime that we have to be very careful.
"There was already a tackle very early and I was going to take him off. By the time that Gabi was ready to come on that action happened and he was out."
Ceballos' red card threatened to end Arsenal's hopes in the tie with the Gunners already two goals down -- Trigueros' opener was followed by woeful defending from the corner that saw Gerard Moreno flick on for Raul Albiol to poke home at the back post. Without a recognized center forward in the starting XI the Gunners struggled to create any chances and did not register a shot on goal until substitute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, returning from a bout of malaria, drew a save from Geronimo Rulli in the fourth minute of added time.
A tandem of No. 10s in Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard was the nearest approximation Arsenal had to central attackers but the Gunners' attacking system did not click into life, as Arteta acknowledged.
"It was the way we played the game and the decision that I made thinking that it was the best way to play but the game was conditioned after four minutes," Arteta said. "It's difficult to assess whether it would work or not. Conceding the set piece changed it and after we had to approach it in a different way.
"After conceding the goal we disorganized ourselves in the high press. We were really stretched and we didn't have the right spaces with the right people. We were open and then we didn't give ourselves the chance even to get set in the final third to do what we want to do because we weren't precise as well. Overall it was not the best, we started the second half with the same players in a completely different way. We play with three strikers sometimes and we didn't score any goals, many times in the season. It's a decision I made and that's it.
"Obviously when you lose you always get [the team selection] wrong."
Despite being reduced to 10 men Arsenal rallied and won a lifeline in the tie when Nicolas Pepe converted a penalty won by Bukayo Saka, the teenage playmaker who has developed into a talisman throughout the Europa League campaign.
Arsenal had been denied one penalty in the second half when VAR correctly adjudged Pepe to have handled the ball before being fouled in the penalty area but there was no savior in the video booth for Villarreal when Saka ran into Trigueros, though replays suggested the Gunners forward may have moved his right foot to connect with his opponent. Unai Emery was insistent that the spot kick should not have stood.
"There was a key moment in the game with a penalty that is not a penalty," the Villarreal head coach said. "VAR should be able to give justice in such a clear cut situation with a penalty that was never a penalty and of course you are a little bit unhappy about that."