Arsenal humbled by Aston Villa over 26-minute period which could define their season

Matt Stead
Arsenal players Martin Odegaard and Declan Rice with manager Mikel Arteta Arsenal
Arsenal have just done another Arsenal

Arsenal have not been made to look so ordinary for so long all season. Aston Villa were absolutely sensational and Manchester City have their advantage.


The Premier League is a simple competition. Twenty teams chase a ball for ten months, some of them are deducted a load of points, one or two put up the pretence of a title challenge and in the end, they are all left muttering “115 charges” under their breath while rocking backwards and forwards because ultimately, Manchester City always win.

Pep Guardiola has had worse weekends.

There was always a niggling sense that the reigning champions would retain their crown but for a while it seemed to be based more on history than likelihood: it was assumed Manchester City would prevail simply because it is what they do.

The usual signs were not present. The incessant winning run; the general steamrollering of opponents; the thousand thinkpieces about how the division has become boring and monopolised; the positive results against their closest challengers, who would either collapse or run out of road.

Manchester City’s longest stretch of victories is six, they have won fewer games than Fulham by five goals or more, a three-team title race was the anomaly across Europe’s biggest leagues and the other two runners had either beaten or drawn against them, sharing a lead City themselves had not enjoyed since November.

Arsenal were armed with the painful experience of last season, a brilliant team refined in both defence and attack.

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Liverpool never knew when they were beaten, an often unfathomable side nevertheless fuelled by the potent energy of a venerated manager’s unstoppable farewell tour.

And in the space of a few Sunday hours, they both blinked.

If Liverpool’s problem against Crystal Palace was chronic profligacy, the issue Arsenal encountered when confronted by Aston Villa seemed more existential.

They had their chances, with Emi Martinez’s point-blank save from Leandro Trossard shortly before half-time altering the subsequent fabric of the entire game. But facing a brilliant, motivated and focused team under a phenomenal manager sometimes just results in defeat.

That was the case when Unai Emery masterminded victory in December and this was not much different. Arsenal had more shots; Villa had far better chances. Arsenal were pretty but ultimately perennially flawed in the final third; Villa were solid and perfect in the decisive moments. And John McGinn was brilliant.

Martin Odegaard was sensational in the first half, on the permanent half-turn, pressing opponents relentlessly or sliding teammates in behind the defence with unerring accuracy.

One stunning pass took five Villa players out of the game but Bukayo Saka could only hit the near post.

That the captain was substituted in the 79th minute underlined how phenomenal Villa were, particularly after the break.

McGinn and Youri Tielemans closed those avenues and opened up more going the other way. Ollie Watkins ran down them tirelessly and still had the vibrancy to take his chance. Nicolo Zaniolo rivalled Steve Holland for his rattling of Benjamin White. Pau Torres and Diego Carlos were sensational, helping form a brick wall with Emi Martinez that Arsenal ended up just slamming their own heads against.

It says a great deal that the keeper didn’t even bother getting his usual booking for timewasting; Villa had more of the ball, a far greater threat and were significantly the better side in the second half so there was no need to run the clock down.

If anything, the fans would have preferred it to be dragged out longer so they could savour their moment.

From the introduction of Leon Bailey on the hour, Villa were genuinely dominant. He happened to score the breakthrough goal but it came towards the natural end of a period of complete supremacy – between the 61st and 87th minutes.

Villa scored twice from three shots, hit the crossbar and post from the other, had six corners, 64.4% possession and an 85% pass accuracy; Arsenal had one shot, one corner, a 74% pass accuracy and spent an uncomfortable amount of time in their own defensive third.

They have not been made to look so ordinary for such a sustained period all season.

📣 TO THE COMMENTS! ‘Not the most abject performance of the season, but not far off. Jesus is miles away from last season and has rapidly descended into being a squad player thanks to his injuries and lack of game time, and news that he needs another operation seems that’s unlikely to change’Join the debate here.

The hosts didn’t even do anything particularly wrong. This performance would have beaten most teams. It just came against and was ruthlessly punished by the best of them outside of the title challengers.

Many Arsenal supporters consider themselves part of that group of 19 now, with this the weekend Manchester City were unofficially crowned. The immediate defeatist reaction is inevitable – the typical Spring whirring of this trophy-hoarding machine often makes it so – but it should be noted that this is not over.

Guardiola’s side have already dropped points to three of the six sides they are yet to face this season, are absolutely knackered and have an unrelenting schedule ahead of them in three competitions.

Two points is far from an insurmountable gap, all three sides have chased and been chased all season and while it won’t feel like it in the heat of defeat, there should be shifts of momentum to come just like this one.

And when those waves settle, Manchester City will probably just win it anyway.

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