Aston Villa (1) Arsenal (0) – Villa Get Back on Track, Beating Gunners

What a difference six months make. Back in July, the 1-0 win at Villa Park over Arsenal went a long way towards Aston Villa avoiding the immediate drop back to the Championship Division by one point. This season, with a vastly superior record aided by two stunning wins (over Liverpool at home, 7-2, and over Arsenal, 3-0, at the Emirates), the Villans started this game ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League and looking up at European opportunities while the Gunners have not seemed capable of stringing together more than a couple of convincing wins.

Still, both teams were coming off disappointing losses. Arsenal had started brightly at Wolves and taken the lead but then, lost their way when David Luiz tripped Willian Jose as he was about to shoot. It was somewhat typical of Luiz, who always seems to be at the center of trouble. In the previous fixture between these two teams, it was Luiz who banged heads with Raul Jimenez resulting in a skull fracture for the Mexican striker. Now Luiz was unavailable for the Villa fixture as his infraction yielded a red card as well as a penalty. Also unavailable was Bernd Leno who was later red-carded in the same game for handling the ball outside his area and preventing a goal-scoring opportunity!

Villa’s loss at home to West Ham was less dramatic, but also worrisome for manager, Dean Smith. The team looked unusually out of sorts and, if the team’s ambitions were to be realized, he needed to ensure that the response was positive and immediate. His two changes to the squad suggested where part of his concern lay. Starting Traoré rather than El Ghazi was an easy selection based on what he saw against West Ham but selecting Nakamba over Douglas Luiz represented a slight risk.

Luiz has been one of the standouts in the big wins chalked up, with his high defensive work rate complemented by his skillful passing and offensive contribution. At the same time, the Brazilian international has been prone to take unnecessary risks. Nakamba offers similar defensive competence but tends to stay home in defense and give up fewer freekicks.

The first minute of the game was reassuring for Villa fans, as the team looked lively and much more committed than they had against the Hammers. This yielded almost immediate results. A strong play by Mings as he beat Lacazette to a ball heading down the right touchline channel was followed by an excellent line-hugging pass for young Ollie Watkins to run under. Holding just beat the striker to the ball but Villa had a throw-in in enemy territory. That did not yield much but they had another opportunity from an unlikely source when the ball arrived in goalie Martinez’s hands.

Advancing with the ball outside of his area, the transferee from Arsenal took the unusual option of pinging the ball low to a Villa forward ten yards beyond the halfway line. The strategy comes with the risk that an opponent will intercept, but this pass came directly to Traoré who appeared to be expecting the ball and he confidently laid it back to John McGinn. McGinn carried the ball towards the right touchline and drew Cedric and Xhaka towards him. He noted that Watkins was making a run between the Gunners’ two center backs (Holding and Gabriel) and, never short of ambition, the Scottish international hit a speculative pass to test the duo.

Gabriel effectively blocked the ball, but his control was poor, and the ball ran to Cedric, his fullback, who was running towards him. This minor defensive flaw necessitated Cedric passing the ball back to Gabriel to avoid turning into McGinn and Traore. Compounding the problem, Cedric’s pass was weak and inaccurate forcing Gabriel to have to compete with Traore, already sprinting, for the ball.

With Traore winning the race, Gabriel’s forward momentum made it impossible to respond to Traoré’s shoulder-lowered cut around him. The Brazilian defender desperately tried to catch up as the Burkinabe international winger approached the six-yard box from the right. Meanwhile, Holding was forced to back into the 6-yard box given the threat of a Traoré shot. Watkins, a young, but savvy striker, held his run and was open for Traoré’s perfectly weighted pass, delivered by the outside of his left foot. Watkins right leg was in motion as the ball arrived and the redirect was on its way, initially towards the near post.

Holding was positioned well and his outstretched left foot blocked the shot’s trajectory. Unfortunately for the Gunners, it did not totally block the shot, only redirected it. Though much of the power was gone, the ball headed for the goalie’s far corner with Mat Ryan already committed and falling to his knees. The keeper dove valiantly to his right but came up a few inches short as the ball crossed the line at exactly 1 minute and 14 seconds of the first half! Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 0 and a great start for the Villans! When Ryan grabbed the ball from the back of his net, it was his first touch as the Arsenal goalkeeper having just been acquired on-loan from Brighton days prior. Not a great start!

Within a minute, Arsenal responded, and Pepe forced Targett to concede a corner. The kick was delivered deep and directly to the powerful Gabriel who got a head on it but, there were enough claret and blue shirts around to make sure it lacked power or direction. Villa fans breathed a sigh of relief, but there were still over 85 minutes to go.

Arsenal enjoyed most of the early possession, but the Villa defense showed composure and the creative Villans appeared ready to seize any opportunity on the break. In fact, when Grealish gained possession in Arsenal’s half near the left corner flag he confidently took on a bevvy of Gunners and came away with a corner. The corner was cleared, but it served to put the visitors on notice.

Then, when Saka, an England international, took on McGinn, the canny Scot picked his pocket, came away with the ball and with Watkins flying down the left sent a long pass his way only for Bellerin to make an important interception. The directness certainly made the game a crowd pleaser (even if the crowd was virtual)!

Saka was frustrated again when Lacazette drove down the middle of the park towards an isolated Mings with Pepe on his left but chose to release to Saka on his right only for Mings to anticipate and intercept.

In fact, the closest the visitors came to a real chance was in the 21st minute when Lacazette received a pass from Bellerin at the edge of the box and immediately redirected the ball between Mings and Targett for Saka to run onto. It took just a split second for Martinez to judge he could beat Saka and he rushed out and smothered the ball at the winger’s feet.

Minutes later, Saka was back, and this time his shot/cross was blocked by Nakamba for a corner only for Saka to waste the opportunity by wildly overhitting the delivery.

It was Villa’s turn next and Grealish set Targett going on an overlap with a cheeky backheel. Holden cut off a dangerous cross at the near post, but at the cost of a corner. Ryan got a good run on the corner and confidently punched it clear.

Back to Arsenal and they zipped passes around the edge of the area before Xhaka found Pepe in space inside the box only for Cash to get his foot in front of the powerful drive causing it to deflect high and loop down just under Martinez’s crossbar at the near post. The keeper got over smartly and caught the ball securely right on his line with a certain swagger that defenders love to see.

These multiple examples of end-to-end flowing football were then followed by some magic by each team. First, a petulant clip by Grealish on Saka led to a freekick at a tempting 25 yards out, just right of center. Xhaka’s powerful shot had plenty of height and whip. It started high and towards the center of the goal, where Martinez was positioned, but kept running away and down, determined to sneak in the top corner.

The goalie moved his considerable frame deftly along the line then launched himself, his left arm outstretched to claw the ball behind to safety. Xhaka sighed, knowing that Martinez’s best save beat his best shot.

A similar duel followed at the other end of the field with a similar result. A simple feed from Barkley to Traoré facing him on the edge of the area saw Cedric and Holding squeeze together to prevent any potential for Traoré to turn and shoot. Like the challenge of slipping between the sliding doors of a subway car for a teenager, Traoré spun around in a heartbeat and immediately fashioned a scoop shot over Ryan who had smartly rushed off his line. The Australian goalie showed great athleticism to jump and get a left-hand to the insolent shot, but only to have the ball land at Barkley’s feet. A snap blast by the Chelsea loanee struck an Arsenal defender and the visitors cleared.

A minute later, Arsenal broke with Saka getting a jump on Konsa only for their legs to intertwine and Saka to fall. The Chelsea manager, Mikel Arteta, screamed for a red card, but the referee, Chris Kavanagh, calmly adjudged that a yellow card was fitting (Matty Cash had the angle on Saka and Mings was a step behind).

The back and forth continued until halftime by which time fans needed a breather, if not the players. The second half started with the same players and the same tempo.

For Villa fans a passage of play in the 49th minute encapsulated why they are so excited about their team’s prospects. It started with Gunner, Thomas Partey, the impressive Ghanaian international midfielder, carrying the ball out from deep in his own half. Watkins tracked him and harassed Partey enough that he was unable to evade Nakamba’s strong tackle just inside the Villa half. With the other two players down, Ollie was there to gather the ball and head back in the other direction. Barkley was 20 yards ahead, so the striker passed to him.

Xhaka thought he could use his body strength to stop Barkley’s progress in its track, but Barkley is a solid boy and he brushed off the Arsenal and Switzerland teams’ captain and headed towards the box, as Watkins raced up outside to his right. Five yards, or so, outside the penalty area Barkley laid a pass off for Watkins to run onto and strike first time. A less alert goalkeeper would have been beaten by the shot wide to his right, but Ryan was diving instantly and was able to parry the ball away from the goal.

With Traore hovering, it was a prudent response except that it offered only temporary relief. The ball landed at the feet of Grealish who might have been tempted to lash the ball goalward, but Villa’s captain is not Ross Barkley! Instead, Grealish recalibrated and started a new offensive with a series of give-and-go’s with the aforementioned Barkley. Credit to Arsenal for keeping their composure and their shape and offering no easy options. Eventually, Targett joined the pair and he swung over a decent cross that Watkins could get his head on, but Cedric’s attention prevented the striker getting the requisite direction and power and Ryan, well-positioned, easily saved.

With Arsenal pressing and their fullbacks joining in, the claret and blues took off on another break with Grealish carrying and Watkins on his right and Barkley on his left and Holding and Gabriel back-pedaling. Either option, left or right, seemed equally fruitful. Grealish chose left and Barkley had all the goal to shoot at, but not much time as Holding moved to block. Ross went for power, and not control, and he blazed a shot toward the near post, but just wide of it. The net bulged, but it was the side-net. The same scenario next time? Watkins gets the pass!

Arsenal responded well to the close calls by fashioning their best move of the game. Smith-Rowe carried the ball, Grealish-like, through the left channel before dispatching a crisp pass to Pepe on his left. With Cedric on the overlap, Cash hesitated when Pepe slowed as he entered the box. Smith-Rowe also made himself available near the penalty spot and Pepe had enough time to pick his spot, the far-right corner of the net. Time stood still, as did the Villa defense and Martinez, as the ball passed barely a foot wide of the post.

The Gunners were not done. Partey found Bellerin racing up the middle and laid on an incisive pass for the Spain international fullback to run onto while Mings tracked to his left to block Bellerin’s progress. Targett, meanwhile, was heading back to also cover Bellerin’s run and Saka racing ahead on the right. Bellerin fed Saka as the winger was entering the penalty area, five yards wide of Targett, and he set to shoot. Perhaps conscious of the size and skill of Villa’s Argentinian international goalie, Saka wound up to for a blast allowing Targett that split-second to slide and block with his right foot for a corner. An excellent defensive play!

Other bang-bang plays occurred at each end with both teams giving their all when it appeared that the Gunners had just spurned their best opportunity. A whipped corner zipped down and through the 6-yard box with no takers. As the replay showed though, the cause was that Martinez and Lacazette were in an embrace on the goal line. The referee had called the Frenchman for being the instigator.

As the 60-minute mark approached and the game, seemingly, on a knife edge, Arteta made the first of his substitutions. For Villa fans, it portended a Southampton-type scenario with Aubameyang being the Che Adams de jour, only potentially more dangerous. In the 63rd minute the chance came. First, Jack Grealish was felled by an intended Saka cross in the face, followed by Pepe being fed an incisive pass over Matty Cash to meet at the goal line with the star sub heading into the 6-yard box. Unfortunately for Aubameyang, he had company in the form of Konsa, Mings and Martinez. The ball arrived in the melee with all four players ending down on the ground and unable to do anything with the ball that lay next to them. Targett had position on Saka, the nearest upright Gunner, and hoofed it away to clear.

A couple of minutes later, Aubameyang had another opportunity, this time from an excellent cross from Saka on the left only for Targett to lean into the $44 million signing and cause him to head the ball high and wide. That was effectively the end of the Gabon international’s contribution to the game.

The substitutions in the 66th minute were more influential. Arteta brought on Odegaard for Cedric while Smith responded with Trezeguet for Traore. The Gunners maintained the pressure but could not fashion a clear opening to shoot at, with Pepe’s effort from a tight angle easily blocked by Martinez with his legs being typical. Worse still for Arsenal, their best midfielder, Partey, went down injured in the 74th minute and Willian came on for him and, thus, improved the Villa’s prospects of winning immeasurably.

The efforts of John McGinn in the 78th minute almost put matters to rest. Trezeguet jumped to head a ball going out on the right touchline to the Scotsman who, though surrounded by blue shirts, completed an overhead kick down the line. Ramsey, who had just come on for Barkley, pressured Gabriel who came over to field. The center back passed to Saka on the line, and the latter attempted to find Xhaka as he was being pinched by the two energetic subs (Ramsey and Trezeguet). Saka’s hurried pass missed Xhaka but was perfect for the skulking Watkins who immediately reversed direction for the Arsenal goal.

Level with him, just outside the penalty area and twenty yards away waited Grealish. The pass was instantly dispatched, and the Villa captain had time to draw Bellerin and then sweep outside the fullback before powering a shot towards the top far corner of the net. Most Villa fans would have already left their seats when Ryan dove to his left and got two strong hands to beat out the shot. If any one of Villa’s Watkins, Ramsey, and Trezeguet had held their run they could have had a tap-in. As it was, they could only watch the rebound evade them as their momentum was still goal-bound. A huge save by Ryan.

A few minutes later, a similar scenario came from another Villa press. Odegaard thought he had broken through the attentions of Watkins, Ramsey and Nakamba with only Grealish to beat. He failed and Grealish was left with possession ten yards outside the box. Watkins sprung to his left where there was space, and his captain delivered the pass that the striker immediately stroked between Holding’s legs as the defender desperately tried to block. This time Ryan could only watch as the ball went by him to his left, just missing the post by inches.

It was Villa who was striving for a goal and not the visitors as they seemed to have run out of ideas. Even Ramsey took a shot when not challenged only to be lacking enough conviction to bother Ryan. In between, Arsenal gave it their best with Odegaard looking likely to test Martinez only for the speedy Trezeguet to close in and force the Norwegian to muff his lines and rush his shot – it may still be in orbit. The valiant Arsenal sub’s next contribution was to kick Martinez in the thigh as he attempted to get on the end of a bouncing ball a moment after the Villa goalkeeper had snatched it out of the way. That summed up the game! Aston Villa 1, Arsenal 0, and deservedly so.

The final totals told the story. The Gunners’ industry yielded two thirds of the possession and 14 shots of which, only three were on target. In contrast, the Villans converted 12 shots into 8 on-target and the only goal. Villa were far more dangerous in the final third and should have repeated the score of their first meeting (3-0) though manager Smith will not complain.

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

SUBS: Tom Heaton, Ahmed Elmohamady, Bjorn Engels, Douglas Luiz, Trezeguet (66’, for Traoré), Keinan Davis, Anwar El Ghazi, Morgan Sanson, Jacob Ramsey (78’, for Barkley)

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Ryan, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Cedric, Partey, Xhaka, Saka, Smith-Rowe, Pepe, Lacazette.

SUBS: Ceballos, Odegaard (65’, for Cedric), Willian (74’, for Partey), Runarsson, Aubameyang (59’, for Lacazette), Chambers, Pablo Mari, Elneny, Martinelli.

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