After a disappointing defeat in midweek to Liverpool, it was crucial that Arsenal bounced back as soon as possible against Aston Villa, only a mere 3 days later.
Arsenal were dealt something of a hammer-blow beforehand, which was that Aaron Ramsdale would not be fit to play in Birmingham on Saturday lunchtime and nor would Gabriel Martinelli.
As a result, Bernd Leno made his first-start in the Premier League since August and Emile Smith Rowe started on the flanks.
Arsenal started off well, creating chances left, right and centre. Aston Villa seemed unable to contain the potent creative partnership of Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka, as the continued to wreak havoc on Aston Villa’s left-hand side.
It was a game in which Villa struggled to get much of a foothold. The impressive form of Thomas Partey was almost always on hand to deny the likes of Philippe Coutinho or Emiliano Buendía from getting on the ball.
Arsenal had opted to switch sides before kick-off, to give former-Gunner Emiliano Martínez more of an overt exposure to the sun, which likely played a huge part in the game’s only goal.
A well-worked free-kick allowed Cédric Soares space down the flank – his cross wasn’t properly defended by Aston Villa, which allowed the ball to fall to Bukayo Saka, who’s scuffed shot zipped into the back of the net before Martínez could see what happened next. Saka’s goal was Arsenal’s 2,000th goal in the Premier League.
It was a richly deserved goal and Arsenal entered half-time a goal to the good and all the better for it.
Given how poor they had been in the first-half, there was every anticipation that Aston Villa and their natural qualities would shine through in the end. Although Villa’s performance did lift, they seldom caused Arsenal too many issues.
The best chance of the half fell to Ollie Watkins, who wriggled free of his markers in the penalty area and rifled a shot off, but it took a deflection off Kieran Tierney and onto the post for a corner.
Danny Ings and John McGinn had chances to level the game, but both were ultimately very little for Bernd Leno to worry about.
In the final 30 seconds or so of stoppage time, Villa whipped in a ferocious corner, but Leno was, again, equal to it and his all-important touch was the final one of the game as the referee blew for full-time.
It was arguably one of the most important victories of Arsenal’s run so far. A tough away fixture to an in-form team with your first-choice goalkeeper out and one of your best players injured was always a potential banana skin fixture, but Arsenal weathered the storm and came out the other side with the all-important 3 points.
Bukayo Saka was the matchwinner and his goal was no more or less than either Arsenal or he merited. The youngster was at the heart of all things that typified just how good Arsenal were and he was an unstoppable juggernaut all day. Aston Villa’s constant tactic of fouling him as much as possible did little to deter his spirits.
Thomas Partey was one again an assured and composed presence in the centre of midfield. The Ghanian was breaking up attacks left, right and centre, and while Paul Merson may have said that his passing wasn’t “all that”, he was certainly laying off passes for his teammates that few others could have replicated.
It was an assured performance from Arsenal, as they move 4 points clear of Manchester United with a game-in-hand.
Now, their next test will be even bigger. Crystal Palace, managed by Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, will be tougher by far than Aston Villa. Palace love to frustrate the opposition and they will almost certainly be looking to take points off one of the in-form teams at the moment.
Yet another must-win match approaches…
1.) Bernd Leno
17.) Cédric Soares
4.) Benjamin White
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
5.) Thomas Partey
34.) Granit Xhaka
7.) Bukayo Saka (Pépé 68’)
8.) Martin Ødegaard (Holding 85’)
10.) Emile Smith Rowe
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (c) (Nketiah 77’)
33.) Arthur Okonkwo
16.) Rob Holding
69.) Zak Swanson
20.) Nuno Tavares
25.) Mohamed Elneny
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
82.) Omari Hutchinson
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
Aston Villa team:
1.) Emiliano Martínez
2.) Matty Cash
4.) Ezri Konsa
5.) Tyrone Mings (c)
18.) Ashley Young
6.) Douglas Luiz
7.) John McGinn
41.) Jacob Ramsey
10.) Emiliano Buendía (Traoré 68’)
23.) Phillippe Coutinho
11.) Ollie Watkins (Ings 81’)
Aston Villa subs:
25.) Robin Olsen
16.) Calum Chambers
8.) Morgan Sanson
33.) Carney Chukwuemeka
47.) Tim Iroegbunam
58.) Tommi O’Reilly
15.) Bertrand Traoré
31.) Leon Bailey
20.) Danny Ings