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Arsenal 4 - Aston Villa 2 match report: never in doubt

A gigantic win for the Gunners.

Aston Villa v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Arsenal twice battled back from behind against Aston Villa to an absolutely massive 4-2 win at Villa Park. There were so many reasons why the Gunners were going to lose today — poor form, quick turnaround after Manchester City, missing starters, going behind early — but they didn’t. They showed character, grit, and fight to earn all three points. Everyone, some Arsenal fans included, were itching to write this bunch off. Not so fast, my friend.

The Gunners weren’t bad in the first half, but they weren’t great. It was more possession without purpose. They controlled the ball and dominated territory but couldn’t muster many chances to show for it. The Gunners were much better in the second half, created the chances to show for it, and crucially, got the ball into the back of the Villa net.

Bukayo Saka was the Man of the Match for Arsenal. He made an incredibly difficult volley look like a walk in the park for the Gunners’ opener. He was the only player in red making things happen in the first half and his consistent threat on the right opened up space across the rest of the pitch all match. He has 17 goal involvements in the last 19 Premier League matches. There’s simply not enough that can be said about him.

If Unai Emery hadn’t managed Arsenal for 18 months, we might not have been familiar with his oeuvre. But we’re well-acquainted with his propensity to choke away matches in the second half. The xG was a throwback, too — Arsenal 3.27, Aston Villa 0.4. When Arsenal were winning under Emery, it was frequently because they were significantly over-performing expected goals. Arsenal outshot Aston Villa 18 to 3 in the second half. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Let’s take nothing away from Aston Villa’s two goals in the first half. The first was a great individual effort from Ollie Watkins. The second was a fantastic team move. But relying on your team to convert every chance and keep out all the other ones in your own end is not a winning formula nor a recipe for sustained success.

Arsenal could have and should have done better on both Villa goals, too. The first goal was a poor turnover from Alex Zinchenko and perhaps a positioning error from Aaron Ramsdale, setting up to close to the near post. The second was a midfield comedy of errors. The entire Arsenal side was asleep at the wheel, nary a challenge to be seen as Villa marched the ball up the pitch in what could have been a training exercise. The move ended with the ball going through Granit Xhaka’s legs for Phillipe Coutinho to score his first goal in some 30-odd matches. Because of course.

Zinchenko atoned for his error in the best way possible, scoring the goal that made it 2-2. It was an absolute rocket into the bottom corner. I guess all those wild shots from distance were him dialing in his sights. Arsenal’s short corners were incredibly effective on the day, generating chance after chance, including Zinchenko’s first goal for the club. Credit to Zinny — he raised his level in the second half. He’s still misplacing passes that he wasn’t earlier in the season, but he was much better in the second stanza.

It was a nice bit of karmic justice that Emi Martinez, a man who has still not gotten over the perceived slights Arsenal did to him, had the game winner bounce off the back of his head for an own goal. That the goal came in added time after he was primarily responsible for the time-wasting was the cherry on top. It’s not often that I’m glad Arsenal got rid of a player, but I’m glad we’re clear of Martinez. He’s a fine goalkeeper, but he’s not nearly good enough for the level of ego and the absurdity of his antics.

I don’t think Jorginho minds that the Arsenal third will go down as an own goal and not his, but he deserved a goal for the strike. He absolutely laced it, hit it with power and swerve, labeled for the top corner. Look, he’s not Thomas Partey. He doesn’t have nearly the athleticism and pitch-coverage (which was on full display on the Villa second goal), but that’s two really good games in a row. All Arsenal need from him is enough to keep their heads above water, to not lose matches because of the CDM play. He’s given that and more thus far.

Football is a funny game. Aaron Ramsdale, who, putting aside that he could have done better on the Villa opener, had a really good game, tipped a Jacob Ramsey shot onto the bar and Arsenal cleared the danger. Minutes later, a Jorginho shot hits the bar, the back of Martinez’s head, and goes in for the winning goal. Those bounces can make all the difference. Arsenal needed something to go in their favor to help turn things around, and they got it. You earn your bounces, to an extent, by creating chances for the ball to take a fortunate deflection and limiting the number of times it could spin the wrong direction, but part of it isn’t up to you. The Gunners did what they had to do to position themselves for good fortune and fortune smiled on them.

You know who might be the happiest that Arsenal got a bit of good fortune? Martin Ødegaard. A few minutes before Arsenal took the lead, he missed everything on an absolute sitter of a chance. The net was gaping wide open and he put it wide. Earlier in the season, he puts it away without blinking an eye. He’s “lacking confidence” right now, as some would say. Earlier in the match he twice passed up chances to shoot with his first or second touch, opting either to dribble or pass only to see the chance go wanting.

Ødegaard’s miss doesn’t help Eddie Nketiah, either. It was Nketiah’s workrate that created the turnover, and he did well to put it into space for the Norwegian. Otherwise, Nketiah had another unproductive match, with three standout “misses” on the day. He didn’t get on the end of a cross early in the first half. He didn’t get much of a shot away on what was basically a breakaway. He headed off the bar after doing everything right to time his leap and out-jump his marker.

Even though Nketiah isn’t scoring, he’s involved and getting chances. When the two best things about you are workrate and your fox-in-the-box, nose for the net goal-poaching, if you aren’t scoring, the conversation will inevitably become whether you should lose your place. The chances will be there if Nketiah keeps working. The goals should come back.

Gabriel Martinelli scored an ice hockey goal to salt the match away. Emi Martinez came forward into the Arsenal box for a corner kick beyond the added six minutes. The Gunners won the ball and broke. Fabio Vieira played it into space for Martinelli to run onto and basically walk it into the empty net. 4-2.

Never in doubt, right? It’s a sign of how far this team has come that even in the midst of a dip in form, with how they were dominating the possession in the first half, I was confident they were going to get a result. It might also be indicative of a potentially naive level of optimism on my part, but I believe in this bunch. Sue me.

I told my Dad earlier this week that it was much more likely that Arsenal are the team they’ve been for the vast majority of the season than the team they’ve looked for a handful of recent matches. It was only a matter of time until they turned it around, and hopefully with today’s comeback win, they’ve done it in time.

William Saliba had an excellent match after several down performances. Gabriel played quite well alongside him. The Brazilian had a chance-saving (goal-saving?) challenge in the Arsenal box. He also bounced back from his poor giveaway for the Manchester City second goal too, dribbling through and passing out of heavy Aston Villa pressure. Mikel Arteta’s setup asks a lot of the centerbacks, often leaving them on an island to defend 1-v-1. When they’re off defensively or making mistakes, it’s magnified.

Ben White responded well to losing his place against Manchester City. He made a mistake on the Aston Villa second, drifting wide and out of position to allow the pass in behind, but he was much better in possession. He didn’t lose the ball on the dribble, wasn’t casual with his passing, and hit his crosses with much more purpose. He looked refreshed, particularly at one point in the second half where he looked second-favorite to get to a ball on an overlap but got on his bike, showed some wheels I didn’t know he had, and won the race.

Maybe Granit Xhaka would benefit from a similar one-match rest. The Swiss midfielder had another off game. Swapping Leandro Trossard for Gabriel Martinelli didn’t fix the left side issues. As I’ve said before, some of that is on Alex Zinchenko forgetting how to pass and some of it is the absence of Gabriel Jesus. But a good portion of it is on Xhaka’s form, and that’s the part over which Mikel Arteta has the most control. It’s time to try something new, even if it’s only for a match or two.

It wouldn’t be a recap from me without some point of contention with the refereeing, but I think that y’all will agree with today’s beef. Bukayo Saka got zero protection. As usual. Unlike some Premier League referees, Simon Hooper called some (most?) of the fouls, although he missed a few as well. But it didn’t really matter. It was clear from the off that you could foul Saka hard and not be cautioned for it. And the hard fouling worked. Bukayo Saka spent most of the match limping around from getting the snot knocked out of him and being scythed down multiple times.

Shockingly, or perhaps not so shockingly, he’s just the 51st most fouled player in the Premier League. After being cut down from behind for the second or third time in the match, Saka fought back. He shoved Coutinho, sparking a bit of a fracas. Saka and Douglas Luiz picked up cautions. The initial challenge, which was a nasty one, went unpunished. There seems to be a bias at play, and it’s not anti-Arsenal. I’ll let you puzzle it out.

But all my criticisms are academic (except of the referee — Bukayo Saka needs to be better protected or he’s going to get seriously injured). They’re reduced to a footnote on the much bigger story: Arsenal showed guts. Aston Villa scored early. The Gunners evened the score. Villa scored again, the first time Arsenal had conceded two goals in the first half all season. Arsenal scored three in the second half.

They were up against it, perhaps feeling like the title challenge was on the line, and they responded. It’s the kind of win that should turn around the dip in form. A win that if Arsenal go on to win the title will stand out as a key inflection point in the season. I reminded y’all after the Manchester City loss that if Arsenal match City’s results and get a point from the match in hand, they win the league. For now, this was the game in hand. Arsenal won it. They’re three points clear at the top. Over to you, City.