Result: Aston Villa 0-1 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 19 March 2022
Venue: Villa Park
Arsenal: Leno, Cedric, White, Gabriel, Tierney, Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, Lacazette
Subs: Okonkwo, Holding, Tavares, Swanson, Lokonga, Elneny, Pepe, Hutchinson, Nketiah
Bukayo Saka’s first half strike sealed a 1-0 win for Arsenal at Aston Villa as Mikel Arteta’s side took another step towards Champions League football.
The win sees the Gunners stretch the lead on fifth-place Manchester United to four points and opens up a six-point gap on West Ham and Sp*rs who face each other on Sunday.
For the first time since the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City, Arsenal were without Aaron Ramsdale between the sticks for a Premier League game. The keeper picked up a hip injury in the midweek defeat to Liverpool and remained in London to recuperate. It sounds like his participation with England is also in doubt. Bernd Leno stepped up from the bench with Arthur Okonkwo providing backup. Gabriel Martinelli, such a livewire on Wednesday, also missed out with illness meaning Emile Smith Rowe came into the starting lineup. Other than that, Arsenal were unchanged.
As halves of football go, this was an accomplished one by Arsenal. From start to finish, we dominated the ball, creating chances with neat passing play that had Villa stretched all over the pitch. Out of possession, we closed down high up the pitch so that the home side struggled to feed the ball to their more dangerous players further up the pitch.
While we didn’t create that many clear-cut chances, at the break it felt like we deserved to be further ahead than the one goal advantage given to us by Bukayo Saka on the half hour mark.
We set out our intentions early on. After Partey, Saka and Odegaard worked a cutback for Emile Smith Rowe, the England international, making one of his trademark late runs into the box, fired over. The 21-year-old had a second opportunity 15 minutes later but on that occasion couldn’t sort out his body shape as he awkwardly met another cross. Martinez grabbed the loose ball as it was going wide.
The Argentine keeper had earlier collected a Partey shot – fired straight at him from just inside the box – and made a superb save to keep out a deflection by centre-back Konsa.
When we finally made the breakthrough, it wasn’t a surprise that Saka was involved. The England international saw lots of the ball on the right and enjoyed terrorising Ashley Young. The 36-year-old looked way off the pace and was made to pay a heavy price when he resorted to fouling our man on the touchline.
Saka and Cedric cleverly worked space for the right-back from the set piece and when his cross looped into the box, the Gunners did well to keep it alive before Saka rifled home the bouncing ball from 18-yards. It was a controlled finish that worked its way through a mass of bodies before nestling in the net and Arsenal’s 2000th in the Premier League. (1-0)
While it would be a stretch to suggest this was a feisty affair, there was definitely an edge to things. Jacob Ramsey had already gone in the book before Mings sparked a melee with a late challenge that left Saka in a heap. As Arsenal’s players turned to referee Andy Madley, McGinn gave Lacazette a shove that earned him a booking. Mings was also carded before Xhaka joined him in the book on the cusp of half time for a tiny push on Buendia.
Obviously told to keep the pressure up, we were quick out of the traps again. Every time we lost the ball, we won it back quickly penning the home side into their own half. The pressure led to half chances for Smith Rowe, from a corner, and Odegaard but neither hit their efforts with enough conviction.
Villa weren’t going to let us have it all our own way and when Young curled a dangerous cross to the back post, Gabriel did brilliantly to head it clear under pressure from Watkins.
Saka had another chance to test Martinez on the break but he was crowded out by a blur of maroon shirts having held on to the ball too long.
By the hour mark, Villa were looking much better and we were lucky McGinn didn’t find the target with a low curler that just whipped past Leno’s post. We pushed them back again and Saka had two more opportunities, the second going just wide as he cut onto his left foot.
Perhaps dictated by the heavy blows he took in the first half, Saka was the first to make way. He was replaced by Nicolas Pepe. That change came moments after Watkins, via a deflection off Tierney, hit the base of the post.
Villa responded by making two changes of their own, Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore being sent on for Buendia and Ramsey. The two subs looked to combine immediately forcing White into a desperate clearance at the near post.
We continued to be patient in our build up play but couldn’t quite create the clear cut chance we needed to settle the match. Lacazette had a prime opportunity to play in Odegaard but decided to shoot himself and had his shot blocked. Arteta didn’t like that much and hooked off the Frenchman soon after. Eddie Nketiah came on for the final 13 minutes.
Villa’s last throw of the dice saw Danny Ings replace Watkins. He didn’t have to wait long for his first chance, connecting with a cross to loop a header just over the bar. That frayed the nerves enough for us to send on Rob Holding as we reverted to a five-man backline to deal with a late aerial bombardment.
White, Gabriel and, right at the death, Leno all made vital contributions in those closing stages before the whistle went to signal a huge three points.