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Arsenal 3 - Aston Villa 2 match recap: WHEW

Goals from Nicolas Pepe, Calum Chambers, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lift 10-man Arsenal to victory.

Arsenal FC v Aston Villa - Premier League
Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images

An Arsenal win is usually a great start to any weekend morning, but after today’s 3-2 roller coaster of a match, I’m just exhausted. Against newly-promoted, bottom-dwelling Aston Villa, Arsenal conceded first, went down to 10-men courtesy of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, conceded 90 seconds after equalizing at 1, and yet managed to take all three points. Leave it to this club to have me feeling like the side lost after they actually pulled out a miracle win.

The 10-man comeback effort, while incredibly impressive, papers over what are not so much cracks but massive chasms in Arsenal’s setup and play — chasms that have become distressingly familiar and repetitive. Both of Aston Villa’s goals were a result of comically poor defending. On the first, John McGinn ran completely unmarked between four Arsenal men get on the end of a cross and score. On the second, Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, and Sokratis were akin to the exit path lighting on an airplane — they guided Jack Grealish to the right spot to chip it back for the goal. Xhaka and Guendouzi were unable to provide much defensive resistance on the move, at least in part, because they were both on foolishly earned yellow cards.

Something in Arsenal’s defensive structure / personnel needs to change. To paraphrase Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gunners are gifting away goals to their opposition. The statistics back it up — the Gunners have had the most defensive errors leading to goals of any team in the Premier League since the start of last season. Aston Villa, the side with the second fewest goals scored in the league entering the matchweek, passed through the midfield and defense with ease. Players looking at each other with “I thought you had him” looks and / or remonstrating at each other for defensive mistakes is par for the course. It’s mind-boggling why the same players are trotted out in the same formation game after game. Make some kind of change. It can’t possibly be any worse than it has been.

Speaking of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the striker is dragging Arsenal to results almost single-handedly (and in the process, probably saving the manager’s job). He has 16 goals in his last 16 appearances for the Gunners and has either scored or assisted in every Premier League game this season. He got the winner again today on a fantastically taken 84th minute free kick.

But it shouldn’t be down to him to carry the attack. Arsenal have far too much attacking talent to have moments of individual magic be the bulk of the offense. The team doesn’t have an attacking system or identity beyond give it to a star player and hope. Matteo Guendouzi earned the penalty that Nicolas Pépé scored with a rampaging run where he won the ball himself and carried it into the area. Calum Chambers scored by winning the ball himself in the box and volleying it home. Other, unsuccessful attacking moves came from giving the ball to Pépé and hoping that he beats two men.

Top teams score carbon copy goals, goals that look identical to ones scored in previous weeks. They have signature attacking moves that you know are coming and you still can’t stop. Arsenal haven’t scored like that in a long time.

Arsenal supposedly want to “build from the back” but there’s no evidence that the players even know what that means, let alone how to do it. Time and again the ball comes into Xhaka, or Guendouzi, or Ceballos and there isn’t a red shirt within fifteen yards of him. How are you supposed to pass the ball up the pitch when nobody is making themselves available? There needs to be a familiar pattern. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just needs to exist and be consistent.

Arsenal don’t have an identity. On attack or on defense. If someone asked you “how do Arsenal play,” what would you tell them?

The buck has to stop somewhere, and right now, it needs to stop with Unai Emery. Sure, he’s not on the pitch picking up a (questionable) second yellow by putting in a slide tackle or failing to pick up runners into the heart of the box. But he keeps trotting out the same players who make the same mistakes and play as if they are unsure of what they are supposed to be doing on the pitch.

He can’t be watching these matches from the sidelines thinking everything is okay. So if we assume he recognizes that something is wrong, why isn’t his response to make a change? Why can’t Lucas Torreira and Mesut Özil sniff the starting lineup (or the pitch, for the latter)? Arsenal need to change the way they play to suit their players, not change their players to suit the way the manager wants to play.

Credit to the side — pulling out a 3-2 win down a man is impressive. People often want the narrative for Arsenal to be that the club lacks spine and desire. Setting aside the overall validity of that concept, the players definitely showed something today. Up against it, they found a way to win. Who knows, maybe today galvanizes the team to greater heights.

But right now Arsenal are an extremely lucky club. Lucky that individual brilliance is pulling out results. Lucky that opposing teams aren’t capitalizing on defensive blunders more ruthlessly. Lucky that the other top four contenders are dropping points. But that luck is going to run out. Hopefully they have it sorted by then.