Aston Villa (1), Arsenal (0) – Our Villans run out of gas but still beat Arsenal & make it 15 in a row

Saturday, Dec 9th, 17:30 – Villa Park

Referee: Jarred Gillett

Villa fans were already ecstatic as they found their places for a supper-time fixture against Arsenal on Saturday.  Their team had dominated the prior Wednesday’s fixture against the team who proved to be the world’s best last season.  Manchester City had won the triple (the Premier League, the F. A. Cup, and the European Champions League).  With the visitors favored, our Villans had prevailed with a masterful defensive performance limiting City to just two shots.

Not surprisingly manager Unai Emery decided to start the same eleven against Arsenal.  Notably, Emery had made the commitment (after Wednesday’s game) to discuss with his players their fitness to play a second extremely demanding game in less than 72 hours.  That all the players had signed on suggested that each was confident of their own fitness and initial stamina and were eager to battle again.

With so many teams being hobbled by injuries (e.g., Newcastle), having a full squad (with the exception of long-term convalescents Tyrone Mings and Emi Buendia) augured well for our Villans going into this crunch period. Meanwhile, Arsenal were also able to field a very talented and healthy group whose confidence would be at a high-level – they were on a run of four Premier League and two UEFA Champions League wins, with the latter two by shutouts.

What Arsenal was not able to do was have their energetic manager standing at the touchline where he could yell out instructions to his players.  This was as a result of Mikel Arteta’s punishment for over-exuberance at the end of the team’s game against Luton.  The last time our team was in a similar situation, was when Jurgen Klopp was banned from being on the touchline of a critical game at the end of last season at Anfield.  The point we picked up there (from a 1-1 tie) meant Liverpool could not make the top four and UEFA Champions League qualification and our Villans did make the 7th spot and a place in Europa Conference Competition.

If there was any doubt that Arsenal saw this as a fixture that was going to require everything to go perfectly for them to succeed, they confirmed that with the coin-toss.  Martin Ødegaard won the toss and indicated that the teams should “switch ends” with a swirl of his hand to his team.  Tielemans, who noted the gesture, with a rueful smile repeated the gesture to his teammates.  As our Villans jogged down the field, the crowd interrupted their singing to give the impertinent Arsenal captain a boisterous boo.

Villa’s preference is to play towards the favored Holte (home) End in the second half when the game is on the line.  That had worked well against Manchester City in that rather than being frustrated that they had not scored in the first half that they dominated, they would have, in the second half, 45 minutes with 13,000 vociferous home fans in close proximity roaring them on.  It worked, with Leon Bailey scoring the only goal, and winner, in the 74th minute.  Sure, Ødegaard’s move would have provided an edge to the visitors in the second half if our Villans were behind, but an incentive to our Villans to make sure they took the lead in the first half.

Such is the level of competition, every edge in favor is significant.  When the ball bounced kindly for Havertz to get a shot on goal from just inside the area in the 2nd minute, that looked like a bad sign.  However, when Boubacar Kamara got his foot in front of the shot and came away with the ball, that seemed like a great sign.  That seconds later, still in the first minute, a move that featured, John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Youri Tielemans, and Leon Bailey progressing, unhindered into the Arsenal half and generating a corner was an even better sign that the win we achieved over City could be repeated.

The corner, as it turned out, was cleared only for Pau Torres to bring down and take his time to survey the options.  Nothing interesting, so he passed to Diego Carlos.  Our equally calm Brazilian eased a cross from the halfway line, deep into the penalty area for Ollie Watkins, William Saliba, and David Raya, to compete for with McGinn waiting a couple of yards away like a canny crow.

Not this time John, as Ben White was able to hoof the ball away after Raya fumbled his attempt to gather. Our Villans again regained possession and calmly and slowly passed the ball around until Kamara was tripped up as he stepped through an opening.  Kai Havertz also staggered as it was his foot that had upended Kamara.  The referee missed seeing the contact, there were other players in close proximity blocking his view, and Gabriel Jesus raced forward with the ball.  He only got as far as Carlos who extended his left leg to strip possession back in Villa’s favor.

Watkins reacted immediately and ran beyond Saliba.  Carlos noted and his pass was instantly on the way for our striker.  Somewhat comically the pass landed on top of Saliba’s head as he gave chase to Ollie.  Watkins was able to recover possession and Villa continued to maintain the ball and probe until, finally, Carlos made a careless pass out to the left wing that Ben White intercepted. 

White fed Bukayo Saka who quickly sprayed a pass across the field to Martinelli Silva on the left wing.  Martinelli cut inside Ezri Konsa and curved a dangerous cross that came to Saka close to the corner of the 6-yard box.  The England international had an outside opportunity to score but totally missed the ball.  Lucas Digne was caught ball-watching on the play.  That was a reminder that Arsenal are as dangerous as any team in the Premier League, something that was noted with no Arsenal player getting that much space again in the rest of the game as Saka just had.

From the goal kick, Martinez found Torres, who zipped a pass to Watkins, who reversed to Luiz, who passed it on to Kamara, who swung around a retreating Jesus to pass to Carlos, who passed it out to Konsa, who fed Bailey.  Leon was already running by the time the pass arrived and he relayed to Kamara (again) while he (Bailey) accelerated down the wing.  Kamara handed over to Tielemans who found Bailey, in-flight. Gabriel Magalhães was determined to not let our Jamaican international get a shot with his left foot, but he could not prevent him getting to the goal line and pulling the ball back to McGinn in front of goal.  With White right in front of him, our captain pirouetted and hit a blast with his left foot wider and higher than the goalie could reach.  Raya barely moved his right arm before the ball bulged the corner of the net.  Aston Villa 1, Arsenal 0 in the 7th minute.  The only Villa player not assisting was Digne who was a decoy on the left wing.

John McGinn, Villa’s captain, is already a legend in his own time.  He was acquired, for only £2,500 (less than $3,000 USD) in August 2018 from Hibernian F.C. of the Scottish League and he also captains the Scotland team.  He exemplifies the Villa never-give-up mentality and, regardless of the circumstances, is innately modest.   Even his unique goal scoring celebration is typically not self flattering.  The gesture of someone wearing goggles is for his nephew, Jack, who has to wear them to play soccer due to poor eyesight.  Consequently, the stigma the boy initially felt, has become a connection with his soccer star uncle, something that all children in the same predicament can relate to.  McGinn also has a habit of scoring very important goals, such as the winner in the 90+4’ to beat Zrinjski at Villa Park in Europa to retain the winning streak, but none as significant as this one.

Immediately upon scoring McGinn rushed to the edge of the stands at the Holte End as if to say “this is for you” at which the crowd responded with their chant/song: Super John McGinn, I just don’t think you understand!, He’s better than Zidane, We’ve got Super John McGinn..

He had given them the lead, a lead they believed they had been instrumental in causing.  They continued to roar for the rest of the game.

Arsenal bravely toiled as if they were not climbing a mountain.  Then, when they got a chance thanks to Havertz dispossessing Kamara, Saka’s shot was blocked by a solid Torres.  While Arsenal was getting more of the ball, they were being frustrated by effective defending and resorted to fouling (e.g., Havertz on Konsa, and then on Tielemans, and Zinchenko on Tielemans). 

Arsenal were creating so few real opportunities to shoot on goal that when they did, they appeared unready.  Such was when Ødegaard had the ball at his feet on the penalty spot only to telegraph that he was side footing to our goalie’s right.  Emi dropped and gathered it in as if it was a warm-up session.

Jesus did better in the 40th minute when he cut inside Carlos and shaped a curler that necessitated Martinez diving wide to his left and pushing away.  Soon after, the halftime whistle blew, and our Villans appeared pleased to get some respite.  The cumulative efforts of playing Man City and Arsenal in three days did seem to be taking its toll.

It should be noted, as Arsenal’s Arteta did, that the blustery wind affected both teams.  Long passes were difficult to execute accurately, and the number of good scoring chances was lower than might have been otherwise. 

Emery started to make his substitution process during the break as it was evident that Bailey was showing the effects of being repeatedly nicked.  Diaby, Villa’s most expensive acquisition over the summer was brought on in the Jamaican’s place.  The French international had started the season in stellar form but had been recently showing wear and tear from a heavy schedule including Europa games.

Initially, Diaby looked lively, but he was unable to get into the play as Arsenal dominated possession and hedid more pressing than anything.  Arsenal players and fans came to life when Luiz caught the heel of Jesus with both players competing for a bouncing ball in the penalty area.  Their Brazilian appeared disappointed and deflated that the VAR official deemed him to not have been fouled.

Then, when it looked as if Jesus might have an opportunity to go one-on-one with Martinez a wind gust made it an easy pick-up for Emi. 

With Arsenal pressing and winning a corner in the 56th minute, Emery had seen enough to bring on the fresher legs and speed of Jacob Ramsey to stiffen our claret and blue defense.  From Saka’s curling, and wind-assisted, corner Martinez had trouble grasping and the ball almost bounced off Ollie Watkins’s back and into the goal before Carlos got a boot on it and cleared.

A minute later, Arsenal came close again when Zinchenko found Havertz penetrating on the left and the German found Ødegaard with an opening to score but the Norwegian could not control his shot and it went well wide. That was in the 58th minute. 

Saka had the ball in the net soon after, but he was well offside on the play and flagged.  Soon after that Emery brought on Cash for Konsa who had given his all to limit Martinelli’s influence, and Dendoncker for Kamara who had run as much as any of the midfield players.

The change presaged a Villa opportunity as McGinn did brilliantly to break-up Arsenal possession and feed Diaby in space.  Moussa zipped over a cross for Watkins who shot first time, giving Raya a scare and he fumbled the save but was able to gather.

Arsenal then brought on their first substitution, Trossard for Martinelli.  His most significant contribution was to partially block a Declan Rice freekick taken from just outside the penalty area.  He was hoping to take advantage of an Emi fumble.  Instead, the ball hit his heel and rolled gently into Martinez’s arms.  Trossard looked aggrieved.

It was around this time that Jacob Ramsey got to settle into the game, beating Rice to possession deep in Arsenal’s half and winning a corner.  Next, Matty Cash jumped in front of an Arsenal break and, from outside the box, hit a dangerous low drive that Raya was happy to see go wide of his left post.

When Moreno came on for Digne in the 78th minute, it was another sign that our Villans had the depth to play at this elite level.  Before his injury late last season, Alex was the preferred left-back and he looked confident enough to reclaim that right. 

With Arsenal running out of ideas and our Villans (and their fans) tasting victory, Arsenal almost repeated their last minute “miracles”.  From an excellent cross from the right, they had Nketiah and Havertz competing with Matty Cash near Martinez’s right post, while Carlos was trying to get over to help.

The wind was definitely a factor as Havertz tried to get control on his chest but ended up having the ball bounce off both his hands and do so right in front of the referee.   Jarred Gillett immediately indicated what had happened and awarded a freekick to our Villans. The VAR official confirmed, Arteta pouted as he left his seat in the “nosebleeds” indicating he felt his goose was cooked.  Indeed, it was.

It was more of a sombre celebration by our team and by the fans.  It had not been pretty.  The boys were too exhausted for pretty, but it was reassuring.  From now on, our Villans will expect to win a Villa Park, regardless of the visitor. 

It so happens that our apparently poor away form is not that shabby in light of recent results.  Losses to Newcastle and Liverpool, two strong home teams, in which we lost center backs (Mings and Carlos) in the first halfs were not surprising.  Other than those two, the only subpar performance was against Nottingham Forest and goals in the beginning of each half that Martinez would normally save is something that is unlikely to repeat.

The ties at Wolves and at Bournemouth were games we had opportunities to win but, put in context, they were both understandable.  Wolves were riding high having beaten Manchester City the previous weekend (and it was a Derby game with fans riled up).  Similarly, Bournemouth’s Cherries were in the middle of a five-game winning streak and look to be heading into a solid team, while our Villans were coming down to earth after beating Spurs in London.

Gaining wins at Burnley, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur for a total of three wins, two ties and three losses is respectable when you are winning all your home matches.  Knowing Unai Emery, he will find ways to improve that record.

Beating Manchester City and Arsenal should stiffen the team’s resolve and not weaken it.  And so, to Brentford.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa (Cash 66′), Diego Carlos, Torres, Digne (Moreno 78′), Bailey (Diaby 45′), Kamara (Dendoncker 66′), Douglas Luiz, McGinn, Tielemans (Ramsey 56′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Lenglet, Zaniolo, Durán, Dendoncker, Marschall

Arsenal: Raya, White, Saliba, Gabriel Magalhães, Zinchenko, Ødegaard, Rice, Havertz, Saka, Gabriel Jesus (Nketiah 82′), Gabriel Martinelli (Trossard 70′)

Unused Subs: Ramsdale, Kiwior, Cédric Soares, Jorginho, Nelson, Mohamed Elneny, Walters

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