Arsenal (0) vs Aston Villa (3) – What a Rebound

When I wrote last week that the Villa could take some positives away from their defeat at home to Southampton, I was reasonably confident that they could go into the Emirates and make something of the game, and easily come away with a tie given that this Arsenal team’s only comfortable league win was against Fulham.

Little did I, or anyone else, expect the performance that we all saw. After failing to put their stamp on their previous game (against the Southampton) until sixty minutes had passed, they already had the ball in the back of the Arsenal net in less than sixty seconds, and what a beauty!

In miserable, rainy conditions (perhaps that made them feel at home), the Villa shot out of a gun at the kickoff. Targett collected a pass in midfield and saw captain Jack Grealish heading to his favorite spot on the field, the left corner of the penalty area. Targett’s pass was perfectly directed and weighted, and Grealish brought it under control without breaking stride. Once he arrived at his destination, he cut into the box and tantalizingly held the ball, daring any defender to tackle. None was that rash.

That second or so was enough for John McGinn to come swashbuckling in to accept Jack’s pull back on a platter. The Scotsman took it on the fly, brushed off a half-hearted tackle and, from barely ten yards, unleashed a bullet of a shot that sent shock waves through the netting. Leno, the goalie, had not moved. Arsenal 0 Villa 1.

Arsenal were set to resume play when referee Martin Atkinson put a hold on the kick-off. It soon became apparent that he had been signaled by the VAR official that the goalie’s view could have been obscured by an offside player. What was apparent from replays was that there was no way that, even with a perfect view of the play, Leno could have reached the ball, but Barkley was correctly called offside. Arsenal 0 Villa 0.

As reassuring for their fans as was the team’s fast start, was also their response to the misfortune of having a goal taken away. This is a more confident and mature Villa team than we have seen in many years.

They did not even seem bothered by the increasingly difficult playing conditions. In fact, the conditions seemed to inspire them. The mist of the opening minutes turned to steady rain and the sodden field made it difficult to control the ball. McGinn, in particular, used this to his advantage, committing petty larceny whenever he could. Still, he was almost caught out himself when a pass back to his keeper slowed and Martinez had to slide out of his crease to keep Partey from taking advantage.

That might have been the best chance that the home team had. An excellent cross by Tierney should have been converted into a header on goal but Lacazette got under it and it flew over the top. It wasn’t that Arsenal played badly, but they lacked imagination and anyone to run at the Villa defense. Aubameyang did to some degree, but for the first half he was isolated on the left and the only time he came close to goal, his cross was cut-off by Ezri Konsa’s excellent sliding block.

Part of the problem for the Gunners was the superbly marshalled Villa defense that gave them no opportunity to penetrate and was quick to counter whenever possession came their way. One such break came from Barkley intercepting a casual midfield pass from Willian and setting Grealish off to his aforementioned favorite spot on the field. Again, Grealish cut into the area and exchanged passes with Barkley until Targett joined them and broke through the line to take Barkley’s perfectly weighted pass.

The Villa fullback had time to look up and note a channel to the far post that he zipped a pass through that Leno could not reach but that Trezeguet could. Saka, who had lost his mark, did his utmost to get a foot ahead of Trezeguet to prevent a tap-in but only managed to do the job himself. A confident, immaculate set-up, and too bad that the defender got the goat, robbing Trezeguet of credit for the goal. With 25 minutes gone, Arsenal 0 Villa 1.

The goal was totally deserved. The only question was when Arsenal would raise their game. It certainly did not happen between that goal and halftime. The only personnel change at halftime was the replacement of Partey by Ceballos, apparently due to a knock that the recent acquisition from Atletico Madrid had picked up. The change did not lead to any improvement and it was the Villa who continued to look most likely to score and who came close from a well-worked formula.

It started with Elneny showing too much of the ball to McGinn who instantly imposed himself between the Egyptian and the ball. Using his lower body strength to hold off the much larger Gunner, he swiveled and sent the ball down the wing to Grealish who was already on his way. Watkins was well positioned near the penalty spot and his captain tried to slip a pass through to him, but Gabriel managed to get a foot in the way. The ricochet came back to Barkley on the bounce but the Chelsea loanee did well to swing around and hook it to Trezeguet, open on the right. Trez only had a moment with Tierney closing in, but he managed to get a powerful shot away that Leno had to beat out to keep it from catching the top corner of the net.

That was at the 47th minute mark, and within a minute the Villa came close to ruing the miss when Konsa, out of position, carelessly gave up possession that let Aubameyang put over a cross with both central defenders missing from the penalty area. Luiz, covering, was able to beat Lacazette to head the ball clear but only to Willian. A combination of Cash’s quick close-down and the Brazilian’s profligacy let the Villa off the hook with the ball being skewed well wide.

These close calls breathed some air into the home team and their visitors, both becoming aware that more goals were possible and necessary. Within a minute Grealish flew down the left wing and exchanged passes with Barkley that left him with possession at the goal line. Instead of picking out a forward (none was open), with a cheeky grin on his face, Grealish took a no-look shot directed over Leno’s shoulder from a sharp angle that was heading into the top corner until the goalie moved his torso just enough to redirect it past the post. The corner led to another scramble in front of the Arsenal goal and another corner. This time Barkley took it from the left and directed it over the mix in the middle to Grealish hovering just outside the penalty area. Reminiscent of a similar shot that was a late winner in the Carabao Cup against Burton in September, this one was a scintillating volley that poleaxed Tierney and caromed away.

At the other end, Holding, who had stayed up after an Arsenal corner, found himself being fed an excellent pass right in front of goal with Watkins marking him. The striker did just enough to make the center-back just miss. Then a well set-up freekick play landed at the feet of Ceballos who had enough time to set himself before shooting from just outside the area, only to fail to get enough curve to bring the ball back with Martinez fully outstretched. In fact, that freekick could easily have been a penalty as Trezeguet had continued to foul Saka as he entered the penalty area. The referee chose to select the placement where the infringement started. Credit to Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, and his team for not complaining.

With the 60th minute arriving and Arsenal not looking likely to score, the Gunners’ manager did what he had to do, bring on fresh troops. Nketiah and Pepe were subbed for the laboring Willian and Lacazette. The new players who had joined the Gunners (especially Pepe) with such fanfare might have been expected to create an immediate impact. In fact, the trajectory of the game barely changed an iota.

Aubameyang took up a more traditional striker position but looked drained and dispirited when he was clipped by Luiz just as he thought that he had room to run at the defense. Soon after, he was beaten in a foot race by Cash who cleared what looked like a dangerous through pass. As for the new pairing, they combined to squeeze possession from Mings on the right wing as he tried to clear. Nketiah nipped the ball just before Mings’ boot reached it, giving Pepe an opportunity to gather and drag the ball onto his favored left foot for an excellent curving drive he aimed at the far corner of the net, only for it to fly just by the post. Truth be told, Martinez knew it was coming (from his Arsenal tenure) and was fully outstretched to cover.

Instead of the fresh legs making the difference, it was the hungrier Villans who picked up the pace. It was McGinn, again, who ended a period of Gunner threat, with a calm header back to his goalie. From Martinez’s kick, Watkins demonstrated one of his many skills, leaping above larger defenders and directing his header to Grealish’s feet for another foray down the left. That attack came to naught and Arsenal attempted to catch Villa on the break but Cash and Konsa jointly shepherded the ball away from Aubameyang and back to Martinez. The goalie rolled the ball back to Cash and he lofted a pass Trezeguet who controlled, slipped by Tierney, withstood a couple of tackles before finding Barkley, who immediately passed it on to Luiz. The Brazilian, who is never far from the action, calmly laid it back out of the traffic jam to Konsa who promptly dispatched the ball cross-field to the waiting Targett. With a give and go to Grealish, Targett was open to zip over a cross that forced Arsenal to give up another corner.

Barkley’s failure to clear the first defender from his dead ball kick turned out to benefit the Claret and Blues (for this game disguised in their new black third strip). The clearance was picked up by Cash, the only player in the neutral area. As his teammates retreated from the set play, Cash slid it over to Luiz to his right. Somewhat ambitiously, he curved a perfect diagonal pass to Barkley who was still to the left side of the penalty area, just onside, with a line of defenders who appeared well-positioned to repel any danger. What the six Gunners were not prepared for was Barkley to meet the ball level with the six-yard box with his left foot and rifle a volley cross beyond Leno into the goal crease. Watkins, coming in from the penalty spot, launched himself and rose between, and above, Gabriel and Tierney to bury his header into the open goal. What a magnificent play all around and what a statement finish. The fresh-faced youngster beamed with delight and deserved satisfaction. With 72 minutes gone, Arsenal 0 Villa 2.

Arsenal were stunned. Within a matter of seconds, the Villans almost added a third. A casual pass on their left wing was anticipated by Trezeguet, who set Barkley heading toward the penalty area with the defense scrambling. A perfectly placed pull-back to Grealish open in the center of the penalty area was on its way to the back of the net when Ceballos, showing great anticipation and agility, got back to clear off his line. Still, this was just a reprieve as the Villans were having fun and wanted more. A tasty looking cross from Tierney that initially looked difficult for the goalie was pulled down out of the sky with ease by the Argentinian and instantly rolled out to an open Grealish just outside twenty yards away.

Looking fresh as a daisy, the Villa captain put his head down and raced with the ball downfield. The speedy Bellerin was doing his utmost to catch up and cut off the run from Grealish’s right. The Villa captain anticipated a shoulder charge and raised his right arm to resist the bump, simultaneously slipped the ball beyond Holding for Watkins to run onto. With Leno racing off his line and Gabriel closing in from his right, the striker calmly directed the ball between the goalie’s legs. From the Villa goalie to a Villa goal, made to look easy. Arsenal 0 Villa 3.

Still fifteen minutes on the clock, but Arsenal had lost any fight. They continued to play decently but never looked like fashioning a good opportunity, let alone scoring. Villa, meanwhile, seemed hungry for more and could have easily added to their tally. In fact, El Ghazi, who came on for Trezeguet, probably deprived Watkins from turning his brace into hattrick by rising for a gorgeous freekick from Barkley right in front of Leno then whiffing his header. Watkins was right behind but lost sight of the ball for a split second and the chance was gone.

At the final whistle, the home team traipsed off the field, dispirited and, on the day, outclassed. This was the West Midlanders’ third consecutive away win and third away shutout. Seven games under their belt, five wins in total and a goal difference of plus nine, with a game-in-hand on the five teams above them in the table. Win that game and they are top of the Premiership.

Is this a fluke? It increasingly looks not to be the case. The questions posed by their two consecutive losses at home were answered. They could avoid silly mistakes and fouls near their own goal. They could start fast and keep up the momentum. For ninety minutes they played with great intensity and poise, and when chances came their way, they were clinical.

Perhaps the new black strip helped. They certainly looked dangerous. The numbers confirmed the feel that spectators got from watching. 15 shots and 6 on target, 8 corners, only 1 offside and no cards is a tidy effort against any team and, considering that Arsenal had just come away from Old Trafford with a win, particularly significant.

One high point for the team was the strides that Barkley has made in his contribution to the team in so few games. He offered another threat, offsetting the team’s reliance on their captain to carry the team. No doubt he, like the other Villans, is benefiting from having the league’s most creative and talented player alongside. Who has kicked a soccer ball and not had the occasional fortune to play alongside someone at a different level? One’s own game goes up a notch or two, and one’s confidence with it. Jack must surely start for England soon and, maybe, before too long he’ll be invited to drag along his pals, Ross and Ollie! We’ll see.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Trezeguet, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane, Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Keinan Davis, Anwar El Ghazi

ARSENAL (3-4-3): Bernd Leno; Rob Holding, Gabriel, Kieran Tierney; Hector Bellerin, Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny, Bukayo Saka; Willian, Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang

SUBS: Dani Ceballos, Alex Runarsson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Nicolas Pepe, David Luiz, Eddie Nketiah, Granit Xhaka

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