Arsenal (0), Aston Villa (2) – Our Villans Complete the Double over the Gunners in Style

Sunday, April 14, 16:30 – Emirates Stadium

Referee: David Coote

A casual fan might have assumed that Liverpool (to Crystal Palace) and Arsenal (to our Villans) both lost at home as a result of choking under the dual stress of competing in too many simultaneous competitions (domestic and European) and the frightening sound of Manchester City chomping at their heals.  In these scenarios, the quality of the opponents would not have been an important factor.

That scenario can be applied to Liverpool’s game, especially coming on the heels of their mini-meltdown at Old Trafford when they let the Red Devils off-the-hook and their parlous failure to score at Anfield against Atalanta, losing 3-0 in the first leg of their Europa League Quarter Final.  Sure enough, they did allow a well-rested Palace to waltz right through them to take an early lead and then failed to create many clear-cut chances. In fact, the Reds seemed to be waiting for the visitors to lose their nerve and give up a penalty.  Despite 70% possession, ten corners, and six shots on goal, the Reds failed to score. Palace held on for the 1-0 win.

The situation at the Emirates was quite different.  First, our Villans were coming off a Europa Conference League Quarter Final with only a few days rest – two less than Arsenal had.  The home fans, unlike Liverpool’s, were in a buoyant mood.  Thirty minutes before kickoff, they had heard that Liverpool had lost at home to Palace and the top spot was there for the taking.  All they had to do was avenge their narrow defeat at Villa Park (1-0 in December) and they were on a 2024 Premier League winning streak with gaudy numbers: 11 games, 10 wins and one tie (at Man City), 38 goals for, 4 goals against, and 7 shutouts tallied.

Arteta had stated that they would not be distracted by the need to win their second leg of their UEFA Champions League in Germany on Thursday, and their early post-kickoff possession dominance augured well for the home team.

Emery’s team selection, given the hole that Luiz’s suspension caused, would have raised some eyebrows.  Employing a 4-2-3-1 configuration he had stalwarts McGinn and Tielemans to support the backline but a suspect trio (Diaby, Rogers, and Zaniolo) to compete with the Gunners’ midfield star power of Ødegaard, Rice, and Havertz.  Watkins looked like he might be isolated up-front and that Konsa and Digne would struggle without support.  Doubt Emery at your peril!

Both teams’ fans and managers would have pleased with the early minutes.  Arteta would have noted that Ødegaard was dominant in midfield, that Havertz was able to penetrate our Villan offside trap with his darts through the line, and Trossard was getting lots of time on the ball.  Meanwhile, Emery must have relished watching his team counterattack and McGinn volley from outside the penalty area with such force that it felled Trossard and may have troubled goalie, Raya.  Instead, the ball rebounded to Ollie Watkins who had enough awareness to fashion a looping header to the back post, but just over the bar.

Once Trossard had recovered, Arsenal were able to immediately mount an attack down the right wing between Ben White and Bukayo Saka, aided by Ødegaard.  The Norwegian, with a give-and-go with Saliba, was able to shed Zaniolo and feed de Jesus in the box.  A one-touch pass to Saka could have been very dangerous if not for the instincts and speed of McGinn who stymied de Jesus and forced White to concede a goal kick.  The very best side of captain John McGinn was there for all to see and to lead by example. That was in the 3rd minute, and McGinn pulled the same thievery on the opposite side of the field to dispossess Havertz and gain a freekick just two minutes later.

Another Villan leader soon showed why his presence was a big part of the team’s record-setting winning streak. Indicative of Torres’s confidence on the ball, he made sure to maintain possession from short goal kicks, passing back and forth before seeing channels to progress or an open Konsa on the far touchline to advance.  When a Villan lost possession, it was Tielemans who nicked the ball from Declan Rice allowing a pass up the right wing with Diaby running onto it, clear of Zinchenko.  Raya did well, as a sweeper-keeper, to come well out of his penalty area to collect and distribute.

Our Villans tried to press, but the Gunners were too skillful to constrain and, shortly after, Ødegaard fed Saka as he broke into our penalty area.  Our Villan defense maintained their shape and Torres blocked the attempted cross and then worked the line with Digne and Tielemans to release Zaniolo down the wing clear of White only for de Jesus to cover for his defender and goad our Italian into a push and a foul given.

Arsenal were getting a firmer grip on the game and a pass that Havertz was able to run onto and hit first time forced Martinez to make his first save of the game in the 10th minute.  Then, Ødegaard found Saka in space on the right and his cross to de Jesus at the far post should have been an opportunity but the Brazilian headed tamely into the outside of the side-netting in the 18th minute.

A couple of minutes later, Ødegaard slid a pass inside of Digne for Saka to run onto but Torres came across quickly and took away the option of firing at the far post, so the England star went for power at the near post and his shot went wide with Emi covering.

When Arsenal applied the high press to our Villan goal kick they almost dispossessed Tielemans in his own penalty area but the ball bounced to Torres who calmly passed to Tielemans again.  This time the Belgian international executed a give-and-go at the edge of his penalty box and then sprayed a perfect pass to Zaniolo racing up the left wing.  Our talented Italian immediately found Watkins racing up the inside-right channel forcing Gabriel to scramble back on his heels.

Credit to Trossard who caught up with the play to disrupt Ollie before he could get a shot away.  Still, that transition from stout defending to a lightning counterattack served notice to the home team that they had to be aware.

In fact, there was a shift in the battle around that time.  First, when de Jesus was fed a pass to run onto on the left wing with only Carlos back to defend, the Brazilian defender squeezed off his smaller compatriot and took possession.  On the next incursion on that same wing, when Trossard carried towards our penalty area, the quicksilver Diaby eased between himself between Trossard and the ball and calmly passed back to Konsa.  When Ezri, pulled the ball back from the frustrated Leandro, he hooked his legs. Ezri was quite happy to receive the freekick and confirmation that he was winning the battle.  It was almost exactly halfway through the first half and, as impressive as the home team had been, they had only forced Martinez into one save.

Another sign of frustration was the yellow card that White received for pulling back Zaniolo as he was breaking free ahead of him in the 35th minute.  Then, after another Arsenal attack ended when a tame header by Saka floated well over the crossbar. Martinez took a short goal kick to Torres who tried to find Watkins around the halfway line, but Zinchenko rose ahead of Ollie and redirected the ball to Gabriel who brushed-off Diaby.

When Moussa remonstrated to the referee that Gabriel had had a piece of his shirt, the center back decided to get another attack going before referee Coote called another yellow card.  The only problem was that Zinchenko was circling back to his position and the pass hit him squarely in the back.

Instantly Watkins picked up the loose ball, ran at Gabriel, swerved to the right and hit one of his patented shots to the far post.  It could have been a reprise of his first goal at Fulham, except this one had a touch more spin and, instead of being just inside the left post, this one was square on the post, and it rebounded across the face of the goal, almost hitting the other post on the way to a goal kick.

As if awoken to the threat our Villans presented, the Gunners went down the field and, themselves, almost scored, when a shot by Ødegaard was blocked but spun into the path of de Jesus who immediately squared across the 6-yard-box for a tap-in by Trossard who had a step on Konsa.

Martinez immediately stuck out his right leg and blocked the shot high into the air from where Saka swiped at it only to see the ball go past the post.  In less that a minute, close-calls at each end.  40 minutes on the clock and still no score.  Saka curved a shot just wide of the far post and, at the other end, Digne had a powerful freekick blocked by the wall for a freekick given to Gabriel who was penalised for kicking a marauding Rogers in the chest.

When halftime came, both teams would have felt positive about their performances.  Arsenal had taken 14 shots, but Martinez had only needed to save three of them.  In contrast, Villa had no shots on goal, but had one shot that hit the post and was a whisker of going into the net.  Arsenal would have still expected to prevail while our Villans could see a 0-0 tie being a satisfactory and as a reasonably likely result.

Emery must have been very satisfied with his team selection and the individual performances.  Zaniolo and Diaby, were tirelessly racing back and forth in their channels, keeping White and Zinchenko from providing too much help to offense, while providing outlets for counterattacks.  McGinn and Tielemans were both stellar and we seemed not to be missing Luiz.  As for the backline and Martinez, they looked like they would never break with Carlos playing one of his best games in claret and blue.

It was not as if Arsenal were playing badly, they just seemed to be running out of ideas and our Villans appeared much hungrier for success.  What Villa fans did not expect was for our Villans to take control of the match in the second half.

A seminal sequence set the tone.  It started with a long run by Havertz and a through ball into our Villans’ penalty area for de Jesus and Carlos to compete for and, as had happened all game, Carlos won (de Jesus bounced off Carlos and fell, and the ball went out for a goal kick).  Martinez took a short kick and Torres, deep in his own half found Watkins coming back to receive a precise pass close to the halfway line.  Ollie was able to control and turn and pass to Zaniolo on the left wing in the Gunners half.

When that did not work out, our team retained its defensive shape, but we unfortunately had a handball called against Tielemans just outside the box.  Zaniolo was notably not in the wall and when Ødegaard shaped to curve around the left end of the wall, our last man (Konsa) bravely put his head in the way.

Diaby regained control and passed back to Ezri who passed to Carlos, to Torres on his left, to Digne on the wing, who chipped to Zaniolo who controlled and turned on Rice who was forced to commit a foul lest Nicola led a counterattack. Rice’s frustration was evident.

Our Villans next attacked with Diaby being allowed to carry for half of the field before trying to set up a shot for Watkins in Arsenal’s penalty area.  Ollie failed to see the ball coming, and the ball rolled to Raya. Arteta must have breathed a sigh of relief, but also noted that the possession advantage was solidly with the visitors.

When Arsenal did finally seem to gain a foothold and marched down the field, it came to naught as Trossard floated a cross that Martinez anticipated and plucked out of the sky.  Then, Zaniolo gathered Emi’s long kick in his midriff and played a pass back to Digne who passed back to Torres and so forth.

With Arsenal unable to take control of the match, they tried to dribble through our backline unsuccessfully and the ball bounced in no-mans land where Konsa took control only for Rice, again showing his frustration, taking his legs from under him.  The home team pressed again and won a corner that Saka took, and Rogers cleared, but only as far as Rice.  Once again, the English international had an opportunity to pay back some of his $100 million transfer payment but this was not a good day for Declan.  His volley went well over the bar and into the stands.

It was the 60th minute mark and time for our Villans to bring on Leon Bailey who scored the winner against Manchester City and the assist for the winner against Arsenal, both at Villa Park earlier in the season.  Bailey had played 75 minutes against Lille on Thursday while Diaby had played only 15 minutes in that game.  Emery presumably deduced that the Jamaican international might have enough left in his tank to contribute to a goal.  Diaby and Zaniolo were both appearing to be leggy from their two-way responsibilities.  Diaby gave way for Bailey.

Maybe recognizing that he might have a break coming, Zaniolo managed to control a long clearance by Martinez in the host’s half and gain a throw-in off White.  When Digne took a fast and long throw-in down the line, he was ready for it and took possession with purpose, forcing White into conceding a corner, our Villans’ first of the game.

In Luiz’s absence it was Tielemans who inherited the corner-taking responsibility.  He was greeted at that corner by the thousands of vociferous Villa traveling fans.  An Arsenal defender was able to get to the inswinging corner and headed towards the corner of the penalty area where Zinchenko was closest to collecting.  Somehow, he appeared to forget that Tielemans was in close proximity.

Youri, whose passes are surgical, applied the same skill to nicking the ball from the Ukrainian international.  Better still, he wound up to deliver one of his wonder strikes.  The ball arced over goalie Raya and hit the crossbar on the way down and rebounded onto the bottom of the post and rebounded out and beyond the players in the vicinity.

Rice carried the ball out of his half and initiated an attack but that came to nothing, and Villa pressed again with Bailey being prominent.  When Havertz gave up a freekick, McGinn took the freekick and Arsenal cleared and counterattacked.  This time, de Jesus was able to get a shot on goal, a powerful one from outside the box that Martinez did well to get behind and save.

Both teams were pressing hard to score and were not pulling punches.  When White thought he was going to pick up a loose ball in his own half, McGinn motored over and took control.  As our Scot turned down the left wing, White left the fight to Rice who McGinn also brushed off and was forced to give up another corner.

This time, there was a melee near the 6-yard-box and Carlos attempted an overhead kick and nailed Ødegaard in the chest instead.  While, the playmaker was receiving treatment, Arteta substituted Tomiyasu for White and Martinelli for Trossard. This was halfway through the second half (at 67′).  Both substituted players’ early influence on the game had waned in the second half and Arteta needed to change the momentum.

The Arsenal manager would not have been pleased with the initial impact of either of his subs.  First, Martinelli had an opportunity to break down the left and test his speed on Konsa.  There are good reasons that Southgate seems to have settled on Ezri as the heir to Ryan Walker in England’s squad and one of them is speed.  Konsa not only matched the Brazilian’s speed, but he eased over to block the lane and Martinelli could not avoid contact – a Villa freekick and possession regained.

The next time Arsenal had possession they tried the right wing.  When Saka passed to Ødegaard, the increasingly frustrated Norwegian was immediately pressed by Tielemans forcing him to turn back only to encounter Watkins.  Between the two of them, our Villans extracted the ball and Watkins passed to Zaniolo on the wing.  In contrast to Martinelli’s poor effort, our Italian was able to create a lane along the touchline and push Tomiyasu back.  When the Japanese international finally engaged Nicolò it was at the cost of a corner.  That one corner became three corners, all the more pleasure for the 3,000 Villa fans there in the “standing room only” section near the corner flag.  By the third iteration they were in full throttle.

While none of three resulted in a shot on goal, each caused threats, added to the anxiety of the Arsenal fans, and took minutes off the clock that was beneficial to our Villans but disastrous to Arsenal’s objectives. 

When Rice was able to gain possession after the third corner, he carried the ball to the halfway line and, then, launched a speculative pass across field for Saka on the right wing.  Between Digne and Zaniolo, the ball never reached Saka and, once again, it was McGinn who took control and passed back to Konsa.

Once again, our Villans were able to confidently retain possession while advancing up each side of the field.  The next foray ended when Martinelli stuck a foot into Bailey and tripped him just outside Arsenal’s penalty area.  Leon showed conviction that it warranted a freekick but referee, Coote, thought otherwise.  When Martinella failed to get by McGinn and the ball went out of play, Zaniolo indicated that he needed attention and Emery decided it was a good time to bring on the fresh legs of Moreno in his place (79th minute).  Almost simultaneously, Ødegaard and de Jesus were replaced by Smith Rowe and Jorginho.

Over the following minutes our Villans passed the ball around in their own half, inviting pressure.  When it came, Tielemans shaped a perfectly weighted pass to Konsa who, in turn, found Bailey running toward him down the right touchline.  What followed was a training-ground designed play.  Instead of controlling the ball, Bailey delicately diverted it toward the line for Konsa, at speed, to pick-up as he left Martinelli and Zinchenko in his wake.

Once Konsa reached the penalty area he hesitated to seek out Watkins giving Gabriel enough time to block his cross.  Still, the ball was deep in the Arsenal end.  From there McGinn and Tielemans controlled the play until Torres found Digne on the left wing where his cross into the box was blocked for yet another corner, this time off Saka.

For once, our Villans took a short corner, to Moreno.  This was also repulsed but only to McGinn who passed back to Moreno, who, this time, slotted a pass for Digne to run onto at the goal line.  With our French international now behind the back line of the Gunners he saw an opportunity to flash a pass along the turf for our Villan at the near post to attack.

That Villan was Torres, still up for the corner, and while he was well-covered by Saliba, Gabriel, and Rice, he got a step on his markers and was close to Raya.  What was also notable was that Zinchenko was not in his proper position.  In fact, he was in no-man’s land.

Gabriel did enough to impede Torres and he missed making contact, and the ball zipped through the 6-yard-box.  It was only then that Saliba and Rice noticed Bailey, ten yards away, unmarked.  Ever so cooly, our greatly improved winger zoomed over and swept the ball just inside the right post and into the back of the net with Raya scrambling over but nowhere near.  Arsenal 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 84th minute.

With Arsenal players looking aghast, Bailey led his fellow-Villan troop over to the “Villa corner” where they, and their fans, rejoiced. 

Soon after the game resumed, Arsenal forced a corner that was, once more, relatively easily cleared by our Villan corner-kick defence (one of the best in the Premier League).  When Zinchenko was able to corral the ball, he passed back to Jorgino who saw a channel to penetrate our instant offside trap, but he did not consider the reflexive speed of Tielemans who not only intercepted his pass but looked up and saw that Watkins was on Villa’s side of the halfway line and ready to break!

With only Smith Row in attendance, Ollie ran onto the ball and carried into the Arsenal area.  With Raya and Smith Row closing in, Ollie slyly chipped over the goalie’s right arm and into the vacant net.  Arsenal 0, Aston Villa 2 in the 87th minute.

Arsenal fans, players and, even, Arteta were gobsmacked. When fully 8 minutes of injury time was announced, there was no reaction. That Arsenal had scored two goals at Villa Park in that amount of injury time as recently as February of last year did not resonate. In fact, one of those goals was as a result of a Jorginho shot that hit the crossbar and went back into the net off Emi Martinez’s head. Many Villa fans on Sunday must have thought of that when the Italian had an even better opportunity in similar circumstances but, presumably, Jorgino didn’t. He passed instead of shooting and the pass was intercepted.

The Gunners were beaten and, worse still, they had lost their mojo! Three days later they were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League (1-0) to Bayern Munich.

So, who do Arsenal face next and where? With only two days rest, they go to Molyneux which has to be daunting. Three London teams (Fulham, Chelsea, and Spurs) left without a point between them, as did Manchester City! Talk about being thrown to the Wolves.

I am beginning to feel a bit sorry for them. Whew, I’m glad that’s over.

Arsenal (4, 3, 3): Raya, White (Tomiyasu 67′), Saliba, Gabriel Magalhães, Zinchenko (Nketiah 87′), Ødegaard (Smith Rowe 79′), Rice, Havertz, Saka, Gabriel Jesus (Jorginho 79′), Trossard (Gabriel Martinelli 67′)

Unused Subs: Ramsdale, Partey, Kiwior, Fábio Vieira

Aston Villa (4, 2, 3, 1): Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Torres, Digne, McGinn, Tielemans, Diaby (Bailey 61′), Rogers, Zaniolo (Moreno 80′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Cash, Chambers, Lenglet, Durán, Olsen, Kesler Hayden, Iroegbunam

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