Aston Villa (0), Arsenal (1) – Villa Never get Into Stride and Gunners Prevail

One week after coming close to holding the Hammers in London, Villa fans expected an even more robust effort at home against Arsenal.

Lots seemed to be falling our Villans’ way.  This was an afternoon game with a capacity crowd ready to cheer their team on.  This was a game we had won 1-0 last season and Arsenal were coming off a midweek gut-wrenching loss at home to Liverpool that put an end to their 5-game winning streak.

Add to that the surprise unavailability of their inspirational goalkeeper, Aaron Ramsdale and the ever-dangerous Martinelli and one would have expected that our claret and blues would have displayed the same early zip as they did against Southampton when Ollie Watkins gave is the lead in the 9th minute.

Our assumptions were soon disabused, as Smith Rowe oozed confidence, sprayed long accurate passes and sucked Ramsey into a reckless, yellow card generating, tackle.  15 minutes on the clock, a key midfielder in the book and nary a look at goal.

Kepa, had had nothing to do, so he created his own highlight moment by climbing above his own center backs to snare a high cross that they could have handled very easily, thank you very much.

Early errors, also, upset our Villans’ rhythm.  The first was caused by bad judgement.  Ashley Young thought that he could intercept a cross-field pass by Smith-Rowe, and he failed to.  It was a bad omen.

Maybe it was the loss of Digne as half of our dual wing-back threat (with Cash) to a hamstring pull and/or the distraction that Buendia seemed to have on Coutinho.  With the Argentinian constantly beckoning for the ball, and getting possession, this greatly reduced the touches that our Brazilian magician received.  When Coutinho is not running the show, he appears to lose focus and intensity.  A symptom of this loss of focus is wildly inaccurate passes and Matty Cash found himself tearing up the right wing on a couple of lost causes.

With Arsenal featuring one of the strongest midfield trios in the Premier League (Partey, Ødegaard, and Xhaka), we need Coutinho to be stretching them with his ball-carrying, precise passes, and shots from range.  That did not happen, and our trio of McGinn, Luiz, and Ramsey were forced into hanging-on.

It quickly became a question of not whether Arsenal would win, but by how many.  In the 3rd minute, Young’s misjudgment of Smith-Rowe’s pass left Saka headed toward the goal line, pulling the ball back and past an out of position Mings to Ødegaard, who, in turn, set the plate for Smith Rowe only for the youngster to muff his line, and clear the crossbar by yards.

It was a salutary moment.  The Gunners had cut our defense to pieces.  Five minutes later, they did it again.  It was in the same real estate, only this time Partey got to shoot, and he was on-target but, our, Emi Martinez comfortably saved.

The pressure seemed to unnerve our players and, when Saka looped in a spinning cross, the bounce fooled Konsa, and he deflected the ball back toward the corner of his own net requiring a brilliant reflex response from our keeper to prevent an own goal.

Ramsey’s yellow card made the youngster irritable, presumably from carrying the threat of another for the rest of the game.  It hindered his flair and took the bite out of his tackles.  That he got called on a play 50-yards from the goal on the wing, a safe zone, probably bothered him even more. He looked relieved when he was withdrawn after 69 minutes.

Smith Rowe, Saka, and Ødegaard fashioned a delicate interplay in the 19th minute only for the young English international, who had started the passage, to rush into the 6-yard box and let Saka’s set-up hit his knee and go wide.

The profligacy had to come to an end, and it did so in the 30th minute.  A cleverly worked freekick on the right allowed Cedric to take the short pass from Saka down the right wing toward the goal line and center “into the mixer” while Saka headed toward the box uncovered.  The half clearance came to the edge of the penalty area where a Gunner passed back to Saka.  Gabriel found himself in the line of fire and his attempt to get out of the way made it more difficult for a claret and blue to charge down the shot. 

Saka’s half-volley pierced the legs of those assembled and gave Martinez a split second to dive and save.  This is not Emi’s forte and, while he did get a touch on the ball, its bounce cleared his arm and Villa were down 1-0 in the 30th minute.

Arsenal’s excitement suggested that they saw this as a critical breakthrough and essential for them to maintain their run at the 4th spot in the Premier League.  They celebrated as if it was the Cup Final. 

What followed the goal was a game with incidents but very little excitement.  When Mings lunged to reach the ball before an onrushing Saka, the latter collided with Tyrone’s trailing leg.  Arsenal players were incensed (or motivated to get our captain off the field), but the referee correctly judged it to be only a yellow card infraction.

Halftime came and went, and it was 60 minutes before Watkins got possession in the Gunners’ penalty area.  He smartly set-up McGinn with an opportunity to pick out the far corner of the net.  Unfortunately, our Scot was in the left corner of the box, meaning he had to shoot with his right foot.  The shot had enough power, but not enough spin to pull it back inside the post.

Then, from a counterattack by the Gunners, Xhaka passed to Lacazette on the edge of our box, and the Frenchmen neatly stepped wide of Ashley Young, only for our reborn forward to make a brilliant sliding block that had the striker as shocked as he was frustrated.

Meanwhile, Bailey had been brought on and his performance was encouraging, showing poise and skill on the ball, and finding it easy to get crosses over.  The much-injured Bertrand Traore was also given one of only very few opportunities to participate but he was evidently rusty.

When it appeared that we would complete a game without a Villa shot on goal, an Arsenal substitute, Pepe, foolishly ran over Luiz just outside the area.  It was about time for Coutinho to take a freekick.  In fact, the kick was excellently struck, cleared the wall, and whipped down toward the far-left corner of Kepa’s net.  The German keeper had positioned himself well out of the goal, so he had the angle covered, but he still had to dive and get a very strong left-hand to the ball and push it away from goal.

All the injury time had been exhausted (96 minutes) and the game ended with Arsenal jubilant and our Villans disappointed.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Mings, Konsa, Cash, Young, Douglas Luiz, Ramsey (Bailey 69′), McGinn, Watkins (Ings 82′), Buendía (Traoré 69′), Philippe Coutinho

Unused Subs: Iroegbunam, O’Reilly, Olsen, Chukwuemeka, Sanson, Chambers

Arsenal: Leno, White, Cédric Soares, Tierney, Gabriel, Partey, Ødegaard (Holding 86′), Xhaka, Lacazette (Nketiah 78′), Saka (Pépé 69′), Smith Rowe

Unused Subs: Lokonga, Elneny, Hutchinson, Okonkwo, Tavares, Swanson

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