Arsenal got through their Saturday lunchtime appointment in the Midlands with a win that may prove psychologically massive, but which wasn’t without issues.
We’re entering the point of the season at which every moment will be described as ‘pivotal’. On Wednesday night, Arsenal gave it everything they could but ended up coming up short against Manchester City, a result which was widely treated as ‘pivotal’ in putting City top of the Premier League for the first time since Boris Johnson was Prime Minister.
Three days later comes the next pivot. Arsenal are back at the top of the table following a surprisingly bracing dose of Saturday lunchtime Barclays in the Midlands. Rumours of the death of their championship challenge may have been overstated.
The early stages felt like a more conventional Saturday lunchtime performance from the visitors. Arsenal pushed forward from the kick-off, pressing high to a point at which they had five players surrounding a Villa player on the ball on the edge of his own penalty area.
What happened next felt strangely inevitable. Matty Cash stole the ball from Oleksandr Zinchenko, cut a slice through Arsenal’s functionally non-existent defensive midfield to Ollie Watkins, who bypassed William Saliba as though he wasn’t there and steered the ball past Aaron Ramsdale. Simple and effective, but aided and abetted by an Arsenal formation that hadn’t quite sorted itself out; hardly the sort of start a championship-chasing team can afford against one of the in-form strikers in the Premier League.
When Arsenal did wake up, it was like a bolt of lightning. Tyrone Mings was moving slightly awkwardly when heading Ben White’s cross away from goal, and Bukayo Saka reacted first – it felt like several seconds faster, though it obviously wasn’t – to lash the ball into the roof of the goal. This was a blot on Mings’ copybook, though none of this should take away the brilliance of Saka’s presence of mind and finish.
To have a player of this intelligence, athleticism and accuracy gives you an ‘out’, and since the very codification of the game in the 1860s football clubs have been searching and searching with increasing desperation and financial recompense for that ‘out’. To have one come through your academy and into your first team so seamlessly is both a tribute to that academy and a slice of good fortune.
Saka is the player that you would want playing for your team, one who is developing into a generational talent and is blessed with both an attitude that makes him a positive role model and a genuine love of the club.
But you do also need a central defence and defensive midfield that doesn’t have the consistency of porridge if you want to win the Premier League. Alex Moreno’s cross, Emi Buendia’s dummy and Phillipe Coutinho’s finish shouldn’t have been so easy, but there it was, the ball in the back of the net and Villa back in the lead.
On the touchline, Unai Emery carried the mild satisfaction of a man who’d seen gaps that he could exploit and was doing so to the fullest extent possible. Coutinho’s time at Aston Villa has hardly been conspicuously successful, but his finish was a reminder of what he’s capable of, and that capability offers up further possibilities that will very much interest his new-ish manager.
Arsenal concerns drifted through stoppage-time in the first half and well into the second. Right at the end of the first, the game suddenly lost its temper. Martin Odegaard was clipped on the shin by Mings, who was following through from a defensive a clearance, and then Coutinho clattered into Saka, who reacted angrily and got himself booked. An understandable reaction in the heat of the moment, but still a slightly careless one.
By the early stages of the second half he seemed to be struggling until his ankle was heavily strapped. Once again, it felt as though he wasn’t getting much protection from the referee. And just after the hour, Arsenal were level again, Zinchenko giving Arsenal a second ‘out’ following a fairly quiet start to the second half.
It is always inevitable that matches will open up in their closing stages. Players tire, both physically and mentally, and the last half-hour of the game saw both teams trying to land punches upon each other as the compactness of the central midfield lost its shape. Eddie Nketiah rolled the ball back to Martin Odegaard for the nearest thing you may ever see to a penalty-kick from open play, only for him to put the ball wide.
Five minutes later, Villa subsitute Leon Bailey galloped down the right and fired in a shot that Ramsdale tipped onto the underside of the crossbar. Gabriel whacked a header over the crossbar when he might have done better.
But if your performance is going to be slightly undercooked, then at least be lucky. We were three minutes into stoppage-time when Jorginho hit a speculative shot from distance which bounced down off the underside of the crossbar, off the head of Emi Martinez, and over the line for one of both the luckiest and funniest – at least for those who considered his World Cup antics to show him up as a bit of a dick rather than the next Archbishop of Banterbury – goals of the season.
With Villa having committed everybody – including Martinez – forward in pursuit of an equaliser, the eighth minute of stoppage-time brought a fourth, Gabriel Martinelli allowed the freedom of Villa’s half of the pitch to roll the ball into an empty goal.
In many respects, these closing few minutes will have been very important to Arsenal. The psychological boost of winning after coming from behind twice may be big, and even getting back to the top of the Premier League for a couple of hours should set aside knee-jerk reactions that Manchester City won the Premier League in the middle of February by winning at The Emirates Stadium.
But it cannot simply be put to one side that this was not a good performance for much of the preceding 90 minutes. Had Aaron Ramsdale’s fingertips not flicked Leon Bailey’s shot onto the underside of the crossbar we might well have been talking about their heads having gone and the title race being in the bag by five o’clock.
League championships aren’t decided in February, and this constant dizzying jumping from reaction to reaction may get exhausting over the next three months or so. Two things were true on Saturday afternoon. Arsenal picked up an important win, fuelled by a young player who continues to excel. But while this was an excellent result for them, the defence still looks porous and to suggest that this was a good performance overall would be wide of the mark.
However, for all that, a little luck can go a long way within the margins of a tight title race, and with the addition of the psychological boost that they’ll have taken from their trip to Villa Park, this all adds up to a vert satisfactory afternoon’s work for Mikel Arteta, even if all concerned had to sweat a little for it.