If you weren’t already, it’s probably time to take Aston Villa seriously as legitimate Premier League title challengers. But Arsenal should have won that.
1) From dominating the champions to winning like champions, against a team many consider to be worthy of the tag. Beating Manchester City and Arsenal in the space of four days could only be more of a statement if it was accompanied by a foreboding picture of a corner flag blowing in the wind that has gathered in Aston Villa’s sails.
They are contenders alright. Allowed to listen in on typically private conversations after a stunning performance in midweek, Villa became the subject of those championship chats with a distinctly different victory which nevertheless underlined yet more of their vast credentials. Deep into December, there can be no title talk which does not include them being taken entirely seriously.
2) Unai Emery almost had no choice but to pick the same starting line-up which dismantled Manchester City. The turnaround would be difficult, asking an awful lot of players who have already had to combat the addition of the Europa Conference to their calendar. But rhythm is so crucial at this stage of a season and that game plan was enacted to such resounding brilliance that as much of it had to be retained as possible.
The key would be the substitutions. Emery maximised these, using all three such windows and the opportunity to alter things at half-time to give Villa the best chance of protecting their early lead. When the hosts started to flag and Arsenal found a foothold, Emery shifted the momentum again with some excellent and proactive switches which consolidated his plan perfectly. Against this opponent and in these circumstances, it must have felt particularly sweet for the Spanish genius to mastermind a wastershed win.
3) The disappointment for Arsenal is that the game was there to be won, or at the very least not lost. They showed courage and determination to play their way back into it after a disjointed, unsettled start was compounded by Villa bursting out of the blocks in front of an impassioned home crowd. But on the few occasions the Gunners did not fall into that fabled offside trap, they ended up snaring themselves anyway.
Promising turnovers from wonderful high presses came to nothing, with ideas and execution lacking in equal measure. For 20 minutes before half-time and quarter of an hour or so after the break Arsenal controlled the match and the opponent but failed to take advantage. And another of those late onslaughts they have come to rely on never seemed likely to materialise; their only shot from the 72nd minute onwards was a wildly inaccurate Eddie Nketiah header which was offside anyway.
Arsenal were probably the better team overall, but that means little when the other side takes the chance you don’t.
4) That is essentially what it came down to. The stunning team move Villa constructed down Arsenal’s right, bringing in Ezri Konsa, Leon Bailey, Boubacar Kamara and Youri Tielemans, was finished emphatically by John McGinn after a sublime touch and turn in the box. Half an hour later, Gabriel Martinelli, Kai Havertz and Gabriel Jesus combined beautifully but Martin Odegaard’s shot from the penalty spot after a few preparatory touches was sufficiently telegraphed for Emi Martinez to save well.
When Odegaard was given another opportunity in a similar position on the hour mark from a Havertz cutback he spurned it wide. The Arsenal captain has made the first-time finish from the penalty spot after a late, unchecked run into the box his domain, but his imperfection in those moments summed up a generally sloppy Gunners performance.
5) A moment shortly after half-time provided the perfect snapshot. Bukayo Saka had been fouled on the edge of the area by Lucas Digne, the Frenchman booked having summarily failed to contain the winger wide on the right-hand side. It was a dangerous area from which Arsenal could have conjured any number of attacks, either pre-planned or instinctive.
What they produced was risible. Saka took the free-kick short to Odegaard, except the five-yard ball never reached the Norwegian as Moussa Diaby stole in to intercept it and clear as one of two Villa players marking the Arsenal captain. That carelessness on the ball was pervasive and persistent, constantly undermining whatever the Gunners were trying to build.
6) Honestly, the amount of passes hit out of play was ludicrous. Saka hammered one out for a throw-in with Jesus in the vague vicinity. Even Rice was at it at one stage. Towards the end of the first half, William Saliba had the ball under no pressure but after dallying for too long, Ollie Watkins sprung into action. It panicked the centre-half who rushed a pass back to David Raya without looking where his keeper was, hitting it out for a corner instead.
That battle between Saliba and Watkins was gripping. The former has rarely looked so unsettled yet it was still an even contest in which both enjoyed moments of superiority.
7) It was similar to the Newcastle game, down to the minutiae of the scoreline, the physicality of the game and opponent, the fragmented display, the difficult atmosphere and, unfortunately, the addition of yet more controversial VAR discourse.
The Douglas Luiz ‘kick’ on Gabriel Jesus can be filed neatly under You’ve Seen Them Given in the We Just Want Consistency cabinet. The Diego Carlos ‘elbow’ on Eddie Nketiah provided a far stronger, albeit still ignored case for the prosecution. And the late disallowed goal was such a bizarre situation with five sets of limbs flailing in close proximity that it could ultimately have gone either way.
Arsenal being Arsenal, it went against them. And so the corruption stuff continues unabated.
8) The imperious Carlos was named man of the match – a universally popular decision, almost certainly. There were two goalline clearances to go with five tackles from the Brazilian, making only the ninth Premier League start of his career.
After the Achilles injury that wrecked his debut season and the hamstring problem which abruptly ended his first run in the side in September, his ability to recover and play such a difficult role at a high level has been remarkable. Villa have been so brilliant that it is easy to forget they started the campaign with a central-defensive partnership of Mings-Konsa. The stylish and stubborn Torres-Carlos pairing is not for shifting.
9) They were the lieutenants charged with operating the high line that, for at least half an hour, had Arsenal flummoxed.
It might be an obvious target Villa carry on their back, but that makes it no easier to exploit. At one stage in the first half, every outfield player on either side was within the same 30-yard sector in the centre of the pitch while William Saliba carried the ball towards the halfway line. Jesus was on his toes holding his run, as if waiting for a free-kick to be swung in from wide. It was a bizarre image which encapsulated Arsenal’s struggles to find a way through.
Gabriel solved the conundrum with some fine passes over the top, first to Martinelli for one of those Carlos clearances, then for Jesus to force a straightforward save from Martinez. Both attacks were down the left as Konsa and the space behind him became the target.
Those two opportunities, coupled with the Odegaard chance Martinez saved, suggested the Arsenal breakthrough was imminent. Half-time came at the wrong time.
10) Part of the problem Arsenal faced was that latent but ever-present Villa threat. They could not commit too many players forward, nor take too many risks in possession or drop their concentration levels for a second, because the hosts would always be one pass from finding an opening. When Tielemans slid Watkins in behind to force a fine stop from Raya towards the end of the first half, it felt like a warning not to get too swept up in the momentum of the game.
11) But Arsenal carried that impetus into the start of the second half, with Oleksandr Zinchenko in particular raising his game. The Ukrainian was the focus of most Villa counter-presses and equally someone they knew could be pulled out of position with the right bait. That was the case for the goal, as Zinchenko rushed out towards the halfway line to try and cut Bailey off, thus leaving space at left-back for the forward to exploit to the fullest. A similar situation saw Zinchenko booked for pulling Tielemans back to stop a counter after the Belgian turned him.
Zinchenko was far better deployed more centrally, playing Martinelli in behind twice while Odegaard almost found a Jesus run off the shoulder of the last defender. Saka was narrowly offside when converting Rice’s fine ball over the top. Arsenal were much quicker and more deliberate in the pass and it was starting to show on some tired Villa legs. An equaliser was coming.
12) That was when Emery reacted. His first change was forced, Diaby replacing Bailey and perfectly replicating that counter threat throughout the second half. Jacob Ramsey came on to compete ably with Rice for the title of Best No.41 On The Pitch. Matty Cash provided the energy Konsa was understandably lacking, the more orthodox right-back stopping a dangerous break developing at one point. Alex Moreno did similar to thwart Jesus late on. And Leander Dendoncker was a stunningly effective destroyer when Villa needed him most.
Before they knew it, Arsenal’s moment was gone. It was and is Villa’s.
13) Mikel Arteta’s first substitution of three actually helped change that tide. There was plenty of sense in bringing Leandro Trossard on – there always is when it comes to such a supremely gifted and intelligent footballer when needing to find alternative ways of breaching a defence. But taking off Martinelli felt like a mistake, albeit in hindsight.
The Brazilian was not having a great game; he wasn’t even having a good game. His end product was frustratingly poor. But he was getting in behind the defence far more frequently than anyone else and it is difficult not to think the sheer volume of opportunities that was creating would have eventually paid off. Arsenal asked far fewer questions without him than before.
Jesus might have been the change to make. A minute before Trossard came on, the Brazilian found himself unmarked in the area through the centre, identified by Saka’s delivery from the right. But a diabolical touch killed the move dead and Villa shored up.
14) Perhaps that misrepresents how they approached the final half an hour, because there was no sitting deep; low blocks were not on the agenda. Villa kept courage in their convictions up until the eighth minute of stoppage-time, when an offside Nketiah skewed his header desperately wide.
It’s weirdly difficult to come by much criticism of their high defensive line anymore, isn’t it? It was, in fairness, deployed laughably at Newcastle and Liverpool, and not much better at Nottingham Forest, but there is no debating its effectiveness now it has been honed to perfection.
15) When Villa do win the Premier League and Scotland are crowned champions at Euro 2024, which of Parks Villa and Hampden will be first to erect a statue of McGinn using his massive arse to hold off opponents and retain possession?
He seemed to take more delight in that side of his game than the goal. No player made more tackles and McGinn completed all three of Villa’s dribbles, often escaping the sort of scenario Arsenal ordinarily prey on.
Any one of the five players to have started each of those historic 15 successive home Premier League wins can claim to be the lynchpin in this sensational side. But McGinn embodies their potent combination of tirelessness and technical majesty better than anyone. And it is very funny that this title-challenging team is captained by a £2m Steve Bruce signing from Hibs.
16) Steven Gerrard looks like a worse manager with each passing week – and not just because Al-Ettifaq are in the Saudi mid-table.2023-12-09T22:53:00Z dg43tfdfdgfd