One of the surprise packages this season, has been the continued form of Aston Villa. Having spent most of last season languishing in the doldrums of a relegation battle (which was mainly aided by their 1-0 home win over Arsenal last season), the West Midlands side has so far surprised many a football fan, especially given their recent 7-2 victory over champions Liverpool.
Despite this, Arsenal had sufficient cause to enter the match in high spirts. Recent wins over Molde and Manchester United had instilled a new belief in the Arsenal side, not least when it comes to defensive solidity, with the Gunners entering the match with the best defensive record in the division.
It therefore came as no surprise that Mikel Arteta named an unchanged side from the side that beat Manchester United at Old Trafford.
However, what did come as a surprise, was Arsenal’s start to the match. Where it not for more loveable VAR shenanigans, Arsenal would have found themselves 0-1 down within the first two minutes, after John McGinn’s superb effort was ruled out for an offside obstruction from an Aston Villa attacker, blocking Bernd Leno’s sight.
The warning had been made and it was proof, if ever proof were needed, that this was the time to take the game to Aston Villa and to put the bad spell of the opening two minutes behind them.
However, as has been the case for a number of weeks now, Arsenal decided to err on the side of caution. The team’s blatant lack of creativity (not aided by the exile of players such as Mesut Özil and the failed attempt to prize Houssem Aouar away from Lyon in the summer) was on display once more as Arsenal continued to pass sideways and backwards as Aston Villa’s low block continued to haunt Arsenal’s underfed forward-line.
Predictably, it didn’t take long for Villa to sense weakness in the team and they punished Arsenal for it, clever footwork led to Matt Targett fizzing an exciting ball across the penalty area, only for it to be turned in at the back post by a defending Bukayo Saka.
From there, Arsenal attacked with a little more urgency, but were still unable to test former Gunner Emiliano Martínez, with Alexandre Lacazette coming closest with a close-range header at the back post, which came agonisingly close.
The second half saw the introduction of Dani Ceballos for Thomas Partey, with the £45m man picking up a thigh injury towards the end of the first-half. Ceballos’ introduction meant that Arsenal had a more creative force in their midfield, but the Spaniard was unable to influence the game much and it came as no surprise that Arsenal were punished once again by Aston Villa, this time by Ollie Watkins.
Superb work by Ross Barkley saw him fizz a tantalising ball into the six-yard area for the former Brentford man to head home the visitor’s second of the match.
Arsenal’s woes were far from over as Watkins added his second and Villa’s third barely three minutes later to cap off a superb performance from Villa as the final whistle blew fifteen minutes later.
It was safe to say that Sunday evening’s performance was the worst performance the team had given since Mikel Arteta took over in December last year. While the Spaniard graciously accepted responsibility for the team’s performance, there was a staggering lack of accountability from the team he fielded. That’s not to say that Aston Villa had not played well, but Arsenal had been especially poor.
While Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Willian have been somewhat starved for creativity in the current set-up, their performances against Aston Villa were stunningly below par.
Lacazette failed to bury a guilt-edged chance in the first-half and the Frenchman’s tendancy to drop deep to collect the ball (another example of Arsenal’s issues with creativity) mean that on those rare occasions that Arsenal are able to fashion a chance, their number nine is not in a position to convert, leaving space on the wing for a counter-attack as Aubameyang comes inside.
Aubameyang himself is starting to look more and more isolated in recent weeks. While the Gabonese forward’s place on the wing has never been in doubt prior to this season, the team’s lack of creativity means that Aubameyang is involved less and less with each passing game. In fact, since signing his bumper new deal with the club in the summer, the forward has so far failed to have the required impact, with his only non-penalty goal in the Premier League coming on the opening day of the season against Fulham.
Willian is starting to look more and more like a wasted signing in recent weeks. An explosive debut, in which he claimed three assists has started to look remarkably like a fluke, with the Brazilian failing to offer anything since then. The Brazilian’s inclusion has been somewhat baffling, given the current form of Nicolas Pépé, who despite a somewhat lacklustre performance on Thursday night against Molde, has still delivered more than Willian. The former Chelsea man seems to slow a lot of Arsenal’s main attacks down and the same willingness to attack and dribble that made him such an unpredictable presence for Chelsea, has thus far failed to translate into his performance at Arsenal.
While the arguments for Mesut Özil’s inclusions have been lamented ad-nauseam, Sunday night’s game played host to yet another cameo as to just how starved for creativity Arsenal truly are. The German’s extended hiatus from the side has been more and more expensive with each passing game and Arsenal’s failure to capture the signing of Houssem Aouar from Lyon has looked decidedly expensive as well.
For now, Arsenal’s attention will turn to their next opponents, away to newly-promoted Leeds United and despite Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Marcelo Biesla’s side in the FA Cup last season, Arsenal fans have every right to be worried as to what lies in store for them at Elland Road, given their current lack of creativity.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
25.) Mohamed Elneny
18.) Thomas Partey (Ceballos 45’)
7.) Bukayo Saka
12.) Willian (Pépé 65’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 65’)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
23.) David Luiz
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
Aston Villa team:
26.) Emiliano Martínez
2.) Matty Cash
4.) Ezri Konsa
5.) Tyrone Mings
18.) Matthew Targett
6.) Douglas Luiz
7.) John McGinn
17.) Trézéguet (El Ghazi 88’)
20.) Ross Barkley
10.) Jack Grealish (c)
11.) Ollie Watkins
Aston Villa subs:
12.) Jed Steer
3.) Neil Taylor
27.) Ahmed Elmohamady
19.) Marvelous Nakamba
14.) Conor Hourihane
21.) Anyway El Ghazi
39.) Keinan Davis