Saturday, September 23, 2023

Aston Villa 0-1 Arsenal: Mik Arteta’s Gunners cement top four credentials

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Yesterday, I called the trip to Villa a top four credentials game, one which would tell us plenty about this team and its chances of finishing that high up the table. The win, of course, is the main thing but there was so much more to it than that.

Bukayo Saka’s first half goal was enough for three points, and there was plenty to like about the overall performance – especially in the first half – but other aspects of this day will prove to be hugely positive in my opinion. We were without Aaron Ramsdale (injury) and Gabriel Martinelli (illness), so the loss of two key players from an already thin squad wasn’t exactly helpful.

To be fair, when you can call on Bernd Leno and Emile Smith Rowe as replacements it’s not too shabby at all, but it doesn’t leave you with much on the bench if you need it. The fact that Ramsdale travelled with the squad to show his support to the team and his goalkeeping colleague was fantastic, as was his reaction at the end when the German saved Coutinho’s late free kick just before the final whistle.

It must have been a difficult season for him, losing his place as number 1, but as he got the plaudits of his teammates, you could see how much he enjoyed it. How much he was invested in the result and the clean sheet. I know they’re professionals and that’s how it’s supposed to be, but they’re also humans and very often that’s just not how it is.

The scenes at the final whistle too, the celebrations between the players and the manager, and then including the fans tells you a lot as well. As Martin Odegaard noted last week, there is something special happening here, and you’d have to be blind or deliberately myopic not to see it. When Arteta spoke about what his team can take from winning that late game against Wolves, I couldn’t help but think about what they’ll take from a win like this, coping without two important players and having another one kicked out of the game.

The away support singing a song about the manager is quite a development too:

His reaction when asked about it afterwards:

The more people we have onboard, the better. It’s normal at this club and its history and tradition is to win all the time. That is the only thing that is acceptable and when you are sitting here or playing you have to accept that.

When I am there I just look how can we get better because very quickly things can change in football because the margins are so remote so just look and be humble and look how we can improve because we have a lot of things to do much better.

It’s reminiscent of the Leicester game away from home earlier in the season, the point where I think it became obvious the team and the fans were connecting in a very real way. Winning a big game obviously helps, but it’s more than that. Arteta said ‘We haven’t done anything yet’, and his desire to keep people grounded was very smart in my opinion. It feeds directly into where we are now. I can only ‘experience’ it from afar, but even through the TV you can see quite clearly how positive this all is.

In terms of the football, I thought we were excellent in the first half, and very much deserving of our lead. Without being overly critical after a great result, I think we should probably have had more to show from our dominance, and once again it’s impossible to come away from this game without thinking how much more potent we would be with genuine goal threat and presence up front.

Saka’s left-footed effort through a sea of legs beat Emi Martinez who looked like he was going to produce one of those goalkeeping performances against us. Then, he got clattered by Tyrone Mings, who caught him on the ankle with his studs as he followed through on a lunge which saw him get the ball first. Saka himself had words with the referee going off for half-time, telling BT Sport afterwards he wanted to let the ref know he needs protection, but leaving aside the colour of the card for Mings, I loved the reaction of our players to seeing Saka hurt.

He has been kicked and studded and booted and smashed from pillar to post this season, and referees allow it to happen too often. I know it’s the nature of his game that he tends to invite contact, but at some point he’s going to get really hurt and the ‘I told you so’ from Arsenal fans will be cacophonous but ultimately pointless. So, good on the lads for taking umbrage at that challenge, good on Saka for making it public in his post-game interview, and I hope referees pay attention to what has been an ongoing issue they’ve been too happy to ignore. I also think John McGinn was lucky to avoid a red card when he just ran over and pushed Lacazette to the ground.

The refereeing isn’t something I want to focus on too much, but when you win nobody can accuse you of sour grapes, so I have to raise the issue of the Granit Xhaka yellow. He committed a minor foul on the corner of the Villa box, the ref came over with real intent, counted out ‘1, 2, 3’ to indicated that he was being booked for persistent fouling as he flourished his card, but that was literally his first offence of the game.

I know he’s picked up some daft bookings in his time, many of which have been entirely his own fault, but this wasn’t one of those. It made me worried that if the official was that keen to hand him a nothing yellow, he wouldn’t think twice about giving him a second one at some point, but to his credit Xhaka not only didn’t give the ref even half a chance to do that in the second period, he played really well too. I thought he and Thomas Partey were so solid, their experience in a more difficult second half was vital. By the way, if someone can explain to me how Xhaka was booked for persistent fouling by making one tiny foul while Matty Cash made four very obvious fouls and somehow escaped a yellow card I’d really appreciate it. Answers on a postcard etc etc.

I also need to mention our central defensive pairing of Ben White and Gabriel who were colossal yesterday – and that was the most impressive game I’ve seen the Brazilian have in his time here. There was one superb defensive header from a dangerous cross, but he monstered everything while making more passes than any other Arsenal player with a completion of 97%. When people discuss Xhaka being used further forward, part of the reason we can do that is Gabriel’s solidity on the ball in areas where we used to need the Swiss international.

Going all the way back to the foul on Saka, I think that and the subsequent break in play halted our momentum. Clearly he was in pain and not himself afterwards, and when he came off, it was highlighted exactly why he plays every week and Nicolas Pepe sits on the bench. The Ivorian has genuine talent, but not much consistency: Saka has both. Pepe’s concession of that late free kick must have driven the manager mad (because it drove me mad), but thankfully Leno was there to palm the ball away and spark the celebrations I referenced at the top of this post.

Afterwards, Arteta said:

It was a big win. After the defeat against Liverpool, but the performance that we had, we wanted to come here and play well first, which we did and get the three points because we want to keep the momentum going and I think the team showed today a lot of personality to come and play the way we played, the way we dominated the game and to come away with a win in the end.

And on what it means for our top four chances:

That we have 10 games to go and what we did yesterday or today now it’s irrelevant, it’s what we’re going to do tomorrow, prepare, how we are going to improve the team and play better to win more games and especially more comfortably, because when you are so dominant like we were today, we have to score the second and third one and we’re not there yet.

That is a drum he is going to keep on banging, and why not? What we’ve done has been so interesting, exciting and encouraging, but the moment you start to rest on your laurels, you’re done for. There are still 10 games to go, 30 points to play for, and some really, really difficult games ahead.

However, when you can go away from home to face a tough side like Villa, do the business, and grind out a big, big win it gives you real hope. The reaction from the players and fans at the final whistle said a lot. They knew how important it was. Not simply to bounce back from the Liverpool defeat and take three points, but what it means in relation to the major quest this season and that is finishing in the top four. So many of these games will be decided by fine margins, and this one was deservedly in our favour.

That makes it 6 wins from the last 7 games, there’s some momentum here, and while the Interlull may feel untimely, I think it will be useful after a hectic, tiring week to take stock and get ready for that final push.

Right, I’ll leave it there for now, back tomorrow with more and an Arsecast Extra with James. Until then.

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