Arsenal earned full points today. A tired Gunners squad scrapped, clawed, and battled their way to a tough 1-0 away win over Aston Villa. It wasn’t the side’s best performance of the season. It wasn’t pretty. But top sides find ways to win, and Arsenal did just that. The win takes Arsenal four points clear of Manchester United for fourth place with a match in hand.
Maybe I’m selling Arsenal a bit short on the quality of the performance, honestly. It wasn’t the silky smooth stuff we’ve seen over the recent 10 wins from 13 matches run. But it was a well-played match against a tough Aston Villa team. The hosts battered Arsenal in the first half, with brutal challenges and persistent fouling of Bukayo Saka. On another day (and against a non-Arsenal team), Villa easily could have had multiple players sent off. Tyrone Mings, Matty Cash, John McGinn, and Jacob Ramsey all put in rough, borderline violent challenges and escaped red cards.
I can’t not say something about Granit Xhaka being booked for persistent infringement, as indicated by the referee pointing at several spots on the field before showing the card. The problem was the foul was Xhaka’s first of the match. Matty Cash committed 4 or 5 fouls over the course of the match and wasn’t booked. Bukayo Saka was rotationally fouled all game, often by Ashley Young (who also got away with two blatant dives on the day). But the overarching point, as we’ve known all season, is that Granit Xhaka and Arsenal generally are officiated differently from other teams.
The physicality took a toll on Arsenal, who were already playing on short rest. The Gunners conceded much more possession in the second half, looked tired, and were afraid to put in challenges of their own for fear of being carded. But the defense played well, holding Aston Villa to just a single shot on target that came on a free kick as the last kick of the match.
That free kick was conceded by Nicolas Pépé, who was absolutely dreadful in his substitute appearance. Eddie Nketiah, also a sub, was nearly as bad. Both gave the ball away far too cheaply and honestly didn’t put themselves about as much as you’d like to see from fresh legs brought. Fortunately, it didn’t cost the Gunners.
As mentioned, the defense was fantastic on the afternoon, holding Aston Villa to a paltry .4 xG. All four players across the backline had solid matches and had at least one saving tackle / intervention. Cedric Soares has done exactly what you want from a backup, that is, played (more than) well enough not to cost the team. Despite the occasional error, his play has been good enough to earn him a call-in to the Portuguese National Team. Good for him.
Ben White has quietly been really, really solid for several matches running. I continue to be impressed with his aerial ability, which was supposedly the weakest spot of his game. He and Gabriel have formed a strong partnership.
Big ups to Kieran Tierney. His form had dipped significantly to the point where Mikel Arteta mentioned in a press conference that he needed to get back to himself, start overlapping more in possession, and raise his level. Tierney was great today. He wasn’t asked to do too much with the ball because the Arsenal attack was flowing down the right, but he’s eliminated the wild crosses, errant passes, and easy giveaways that had crept into his play. And he had a defensive stormer today, winning almost all of his duels and shutting down the Villa attacking right.
The Arsenal defense is greatly aided by the play of Thomas Partey in front of them. He had another magnificent match. There’s not much more to be said - he’s doing everything Mikel Arteta bought him to do and it’s making everybody around him better.
And finally, Bernd Leno. Well done, sir. It isn’t easy being thrust back into the starting lineup after a long spell on the shelf, but he kept the clean sheet. He didn’t have too much to do in terms of shot-stopping, but he got a crucial hand to that free kick at the death that looked like it might be bending into the far corner and / or into the path of a Villa attacker. Leno was a bit shaky on aerial balls but did just enough.
It’s not clear when Aaron Ramsdale will be back, Mikel Arteta said he’d be out a few weeks with a hip problem. Today’s clean sheet would be a proper send-off for Bernd if it turns out to be his last match in an Arsenal shirt. He was the Gunners’ most important player for two or three seasons during the down years and won the club a fair few points. He’s been professional and not made problems after losing his starting spot to Ramsdale.
You could see how much the win and Leno’s clean sheet meant to the players. Most of the team ran over to celebrate with him at the final whistle, including Aaron Ramsdale, who insisted on traveling with the team despite being hurt. Martin Ødegaard smiled and gave the TV camera a thumbs up. Emile Smith Rowe tossed multiple kits into the crowd. Bukayo Saka gave his shirt to a young fan in the away end and shared an adorable embrace with him. There is a genuine connection between the players and the support at Arsenal again, and it mirrors the togetherness and spirit this bunch show match-in, match-out.
There is something special happening at Arsenal.