Arsenal (3) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa go from bad to worse

The question on the minds of all fans prior to this game was which team would be best psychologically prepared.  Both Arsenal and Villa have exhibited fragility this season, as well as great potential that brought them outstanding wins.  At a similar juncture last year, the Villans came into the Emirates on the back of a home loss.  Then, it was a loss to the Saints, 4-3, but the mood was very different.  Southampton had taken a 4-0 lead at the 57th minute mark (ironically scored by Danny Ings) yet Villa rebounded with three unanswered goals.  It was a game Villa players realized they had given away by conceding three unnecessary freekicks in the first half that Ward-Prowse had turned into a 3-0 lead at halftime, a game they almost clawed back.

This year’s lead-in game was also at home, against Wolves. This time Villa took a 2-0 lead almost to the 80 minutes mark but eventually lost, demoralizingly, 3-2 at home. Villa’s post-Southampton response in London was to fly off the blocks at the kick-off and put the ball in the Gunners’ net within sixty seconds.  Despite having McGinn’s great effort blown-off for offside, our Villans were undaunted and won 3-0 comfortably (Ollie getting a brace). Arsenal barely threatened.

So why the huge difference in Villa’s performance just weeks after coming away with the spoils from a trip to Old Trafford.  Of course, there is the Jack factor, and this is a better Arsenal that was up for this game after their last-gasp equaliser against Crystal Palace.  Still, the difference in intensity was palpable. 

Within sixty-seconds of this game the Villa had not put the ball in the back of the net. Instead, Ollie Watkins was collecting a yellow card for a bone-headed retaliation against Gabriel .  Carrying that yellow neutered our best scoring threat by restricting his ability to press lest he received a second yellow.

Arsenal, in contrast, had swagger.  A teasing cross to the far post by Saka after 4 minutes induced Aubameyang into a scissors’ kick that the striker totally messed up but responded with a cheeky apologetic smile.  Within another 4 minutes, Aubameyang had the ball in the net but this was rejected based on a prior foul by Lacazette on Konsa.  A few minutes after that, a poor clearance of a corner by Targett landed in Smith Rowe’s wheelhouse only for Tuanzebe to block the shot.  Then another freekick let Arsenal create more confusion in the Villa goalmouth with Partey the quickest to respond, bouncing the ball off the crossbar.

It was one-way traffic and our Villans could barely maintain possession let alone mount an attack.  Finally, the Gunners found the back of the net.  It was from yet another corner and this time Smith Rowe’s kick was perfect for Partey to meet at the near post.  The swarthy Ghanaian barely registered McGinn’s challenge as he glanced his header down in front of Emi Martinez.  The ball bounced beyond our goalie who, to his credit, did get a hand to it, but not enough. Arsenal 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 23rd minute.

Villa shoulders sagged and there was no sense that this team knew what to do next.  With one of their few ventures into the Gunners’ half at the 30 minute mark, they found themselves exposed to the counterattack. Tavares broke down the left wing and found Saka open coming in from the right with Targett, as wing back, trailing the play.  Saka did everything perfectly, dragging the goalie to his left and shooting across his body to Emi’s right, only for it to strike Emi’s trailing leg.  Great save.

The rest of the half calmed down as Villa, despite showing no attacking ability, limited their hosts efforts to add to their single goal.  That was until referee Craig Pawson was contacted by the VAR official just prior to the halftime whistle to check a video replay that, they concluded, showed Targett kicking Lacazette’s heel on the way to clearing the ball in a penalty area tussle. 

The penalty kick was as aggravating as the Villa performance.  Emi made a great save but could not prevent Aubameyang’s follow-up from making it two for the bad guys.  Emi pounded the ground in frustration that he had not pushed the ball wider or behind for a corner that would have been the end of the play.  Instead, it was Arsenal 2, Aston Villa 0.

Somehow, Villa Manager Dean Smith managed to generate a much-improved response in the second half.  Perhaps it was the inclusion of Leon Bailey for Tuanzebe (and a back four instead of back three and wingbacks). Immediately, Watkins found some space on the left and he fired low to the near side forcing Ramsdale to drop sharply and use his feet to direct the shot outside the post.  Then, when Lokonga put Saka through on the right, Targett timed his slide perfectly so that the England international’s shot bounced harmlessly away.

All Villa’s pressure backfired when McGinn, usually the sparkplug, under-hit a pass to Bailey and Smith-Rowe intercepted. With the assistance of Partey and Tavares, the English youngster broke forward, executed a perfect give-and-go with Aubameyang, leaving him with only Mings between him and the goal.  McGinn was a little slow tracking back and Mings found himself undecided whether to commit.  Eventually, Villa’s captain moved over to block the threat just as Smith Rowe set himself to curve a shot around the goalie and inside his left post. 

The result was that Martinez dove to his left just as the ball deflected off Mings’s left foot, off the inside of Martinez’s right post and into the back of the net!  Arsenal 3, Aston Villa 0 in the 56th minute.  Devastating!

Villa kept plugging away as Arsenal relaxed.  Targett took the opportunity to slip a perfect pass into the inside left channel for Buendia to race in with only Ramsdale to beat.  A hard shot off the ground would have beaten the goalie, but the shot along the turf let Ramsdale deflect the shot away with his left foot for a corner in the 62nd minute.  That was almost the first contribution to the game by Buendia and his failure to capitalize was enough for Smith.  He brought on Ramsey five minutes later.

In the 82nd minute Luiz fed Bailey who carried the ball across the edge of the penalty area from the right.  Ramsey was standing just outside of the area in the center of the field, waiting to see if he might receive a pass from the talented Jamaican.  It did not happen, but Jacob was ready when Bailey let the ball run ahead of him.  Villa’s youngster has enough soccer instinct to see that he was better positioned than Bailey to shoot.  He also recognized that he had Ben White standing right in front of him who was unsighting Ramsdale. 

Ramsey calmly stepped forward and, with his right foot, curved the ball into the goalie’s top left corner of the net.  It was so neatly placed that even a full view would not have helped the keeper.  Young Aaron was not very happy to lose his shutout as he signified with great gesticulations.  Arsenal 3, Aston Villa 1 in the 82nd minute.

He might have been even more agitated if a couple of minutes later Watkins had been more alert when two Arsenal defenders both attempted to stop Mings reaching a long throw from the left by Cash.  They succeeded but the ball landed at Watkins’ feet, in the 6-yard box. Ollie was totally unprepared and he watched it bounce away for a goal kick.  He looked mortified.

Villa had two more opportunities.  A slip by an Arsenal defender, left Ramsey an even better opportunity than the one he scored from.  This one was on his favored left foot, but he dragged it wide of the far post from 12 yards in the 90th minutes

Then in the 4th minute of stoppage time, Bailey curved a powerful freekick just over the bar and close enough to Ramsdale’s left post that it could easily have added to the team’s stats if not to their point tally.

While it wasn’t as shocking a result as the loss to Wolves at home, that it came right after that game must have made for a very demoralizing and worrying week for Dean Smith and the organization.  It put question marks alongside so many pieces of the Villa plan to get to the next level: Can Smith turn the team around?  Was Buendia the right replacement for Grealish?  Will Watkins and Ings ever gel?  Is a back three the best formation given their squad? 

A test against the impressive West Ham under David Moyes is a sure way to find out.

Arsenal: Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, Gabriel Magalhães, Nuno Tavares, White, Partey, Smith Rowe, Saka, Sambi Lokonga (Maitland-Niles 73′), Aubameyang, Lacazette (Ødegaard 68′)

Unused Subs: Leno, Holding, Kolasinac, Pépé, Cédric Soares, Mohamed Elneny, Gabriel Martinelli, Maitland-Niles, Ødegaard

Aston Villa: Martinez, Mings, Konsa, Tuanzebe (Bailey 45′), McGinn, Cash, Targett, Douglas Luiz, Watkins, Buendía (Jacob Ramsey 68′), Ings (El Ghazi 77′)

Unused Subs: Steer, Archer, Sanson, Young, Hause, Nakamba

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