Monday, November 28, 2022

Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa: Double Gabriel all the way …

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Arsenal made it five wins from five with a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa last night.

In the absence of Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey, Albert Sambi Lokonga was handed his first start of the season, and his first start since Southampton away last season. A show of faith from the manager, even if he wasn’t exactly replete with options, and I thought the Belgian had a good game. His range of passing in the first half was impressive.

In that first 45 minutes, Arsenal were dominant and very impressive. The intensity with which we played was incredible. Villa were not given a half-second to settle, and what was clear from very early on was their main tactic was to spoil and kick rather than anything else. It’s not as if they don’t have some talented players either, but having lost three games already this season, Steven Gerrard wasn’t prepared to do anything as risky as … play football.

I thought we should have had an early penalty when Bukayo Saka burst into the box before being obviously held and pulled down by Tyrone Mings, but the work experience ref played on and VAR saw nothing wrong. We peppered the Villa goal, Gabriel shooting just wide after they couldn’t get it clear from a corner, and after Ramsey had been booked for a nasty foul on Martinelli, Saka should have put us ahead. It’s clear he’s not quite at his best this season, and the opportunity presented to him at the back post by Martinelli ought to have been tucked away.

Former Gunner Emi Martinez was taking his time over every goal kick, much to the displeasure of the home fans, but he should have taken more time trying to save a Granit Xhaka shot/cross which, to be fair, took a deflection. It wasn’t convincing goalkeeping though, not for the first time this week by an ex-Arsenal keeper, and Gabriel Jesus was sharpest to tuck the ball away and make it 1-0.

The first period ended with Arsenal having had 15 shots to Villa’s 2, and right towards the end a sumptuous move and a brilliant Martinelli effort drew a very good save from Martinez. We deserved more than a one goal lead, but unless you score that goal a game is always going to be on a bit of a knife edge.

I thought Villa were better in the second half because they tried to play and we weren’t quite at the level we had in the opening 45. Again, I thought we should have had a penalty when Martinez grabbed Jesus around the neck then flung himself to the ground as if he’d been fouled. Beyond it being absolutely pathetic, it was surely a foul? And speaking of fouls, John McGinn’s studs finding Martin Odegaard’s shin was the obvious consequence of Gerrard’s ‘Just kick them’ teamtalk, and weak refereeing. Hopefully the Norwegian is ok for Sunday but you could clearly see him feeling the effects of it until he was replaced by Emile Smith Rowe.

Villa’s goal, I’m a bit in two minds about it. On the one hand, you want your keeper to be stronger, but on the other he’s clearly being held by the Villa player, and I think it’s a foul. Perhaps Tomiyasu might have been able to do more at the near post too. If/when this happens again, we need to get an Arsenal player between his goalkeeper and the opposition player. Don’t let your keeper get held like that because you can’t trust the officials – even with VAR. Douglas Luiz, someone whose name has been mentioned in dispatches as a possible deadline day target, curled the ball straight in from the corner.

A frustrating goal to concede, but I mentioned something the other day about this team’s ability to hit back at disappointing moments in games. We did it twice against Leicester; when Fulham went ahead on Saturday, we equalised inside five minutes; and last night we did it again. Villa barely had time to settle, before Gabriel found Martinelli down the left hand side. He found Tomiyasu on the other side of the box who played it to Saka, and his cross to the back post found our youngest Gabriel who finished well to make it 2-1.

No less than we deserved, and when we talk about the progress this team is making, the way we respond to in-game setbacks is one of the most satisfying developments. Sometimes when the opposition score, it gives them a boost, but doing what we do takes the wind completely out of their sails and I love it.

The last few minutes with a one goal lead are always a bit nervy, but I thought we got another good cameo from Eddie Nketiah when he came on. He held it up very well, drove us forward, and gave us an outlet. Villa never really came close to an equaliser, and in the end I thought we were more than good value for all three points while Steven Gerrard has to contemplate four defeats from five this season and I hope he does it to a Phil Collins soundtrack.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta expressed some concern over potential injuries to Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale (who seemed to be feeling his hamstring), but said:

We are obviously really happy because we are winning football matches that we deserve to win. The way we are performing and playing, and we need to continue. Again, there are a lot of things that we have to improve and you could see that in the second half, but the way we played in the first half, the amount of chances, how much we generated, how dominant we were, and the energy that we generated is really pleasing as a coach.

He must be delighted with his side. Collectively we’re good, individually there are some shining lights, and while Jesus scored again, I thought Martinelli was effervescent again. He’s really making strides this season. Granit Xhaka had another good game, I mentioned Sambi at the top but this was a chance for him and he took it well, and it’s all built on a platform of genuine solidity and presence at the back.

It’s Manchester United on Sunday next, and the big question for the manager after the game last night was whether or not there would be a deadline day signing. He referenced being short in midfield in particular after confirming Elneny’s injury was ‘not good’, and said:

“We are a bit short in that position. We are just looking at options in the market. As I said, the club has been super supportive to try and keep improving the squad and the team as we can, and if the right player is there and we can do it, we will try.”

Who it is, and whether it’s even possible at this late stage remains to be seen. They do have a bit of previous for a deadline day signing, Tomiyasu was a late arrival last season, so fingers crossed they can do it.

Whatever happens, you can follow the action on the Arseblog News Transfer Deadline Day live blog, which we’ll update right through until the close of the window at 11pm tonight. Don’t worry, I’ve got all the coffee and amphetamines lined up. I mean, just coffee. Delicious coffee.

See you over there, and we’ll have a post-window podcast tomorrow to chat about that, the Villa game and much more.

For now, take it easy.

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