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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka makes the difference against Aston Villa | Premier League

This was a test Arsenal needed to pass and they did so with conviction, even if the margin of victory was narrow. They had lost here in their previous two visits but this time a similar outcome was never on: a fluent and controlled performance, particularly during a first half in which they afforded Aston Villa almost nothing, ensured their claim to fourth place looks overwhelming and it was a good way to banish any hangover from Wednesday’s home defeat to Liverpool. Bukayo Saka’s crisp strike on the half-hour was enough to restore their momentum and, although they were visibly tired towards the end, a mainly disappointing Villa only showed occasional signs of changing the mood.

Arsenal’s spirits in the buildup had been dampened by news that Aaron Ramsdale, such a revelation between the posts this season, will be sidelined for several weeks with a muscle injury. Bernd Leno, who had not made a top-flight appearance since 28 August, deputised but the show was initially stolen by a player who could never quite displace the German during his days as first choice. Emiliano Martínez joined Villa in 2020 to play regularly: in the 10th minute he showed the benefit of practice with an astounding save, plunging low to his left at the closest of quarters and managing to divert the ball after Ezri Konsa had turned Saka’s inquisitive cross towards his own bottom corner.

Arsenal were almost entirely dominant, snapping at Villa and showing little sign of fatigue despite Arteta’s strongly expressed consternation that they had only faced Liverpool two and a half days previously. The hosts were allowed no chance to establish a rhythm in the first half and were exposed semi-regularly. Emile Smith Rowe, returning to the starting lineup due to Gabriel Martinelli’s illness, caught the eye as usual with his blend of grace and grit: the England forward could have marked his comeback with a goal in the game’s first significant attack but shot waywardly after smart buildup play between Saka and Martin Ødegaard.

Thomas Partey drew a more straightforward save from Martínez while Smith Rowe, running on to a Saka centre, might have scored if Alexandre Lacazette had not been in close proximity. Conditions were windy but on the pitch things were only blowing in one direction. It was little surprise when Saka made Arsenal’s superiority count, even if Steven Gerrard will not have enjoyed the messy defending that contributed.

Emile Smith Rowe, back in the Arsenal starting lineup, evades Aston Villa’s Matty Cash.
Emile Smith Rowe, back in the Arsenal starting lineup, evades Aston Villa’s Matty Cash. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The box was packed when, after a short free-kick, Cédric Soares crossed deep and Granit Xhaka headed on. Villa had a chance to clear but Jacob Ramsey, dabbing out a leg, could only divert the ball out to the ‘D’. From there, Saka returned it with a low half-volley; it was struck firmly and skidded under the right hand of Martínez, who will not enjoy the replays and would surely have done better had he not been unsighted. Arsenal had scored their 2,000th Premier League goal.

The home crowd had something to enliven them when Tyrone Mings was booked, ludicrously, after a fair challenge on Saka. But that was as energised as they were allowed to get before half-time; despite such promise on paper, their attacking threat had been reduced to scraps.

Villa had not taken a single shot, and if Gerrard was hoping for an instant reversal in fortunes after the interval he would be frustrated. Arsenal kept coming, repeatedly stealing possession and operating with an extra couple of gears. Martínez saved from Smith Rowe after Saka had speared a clever corner out to him, while Ødegaard’s effort was deflected wide. Beyond one sound piece of defending by Gabriel at the far post, Villa were asking few questions in return.

When they finally managed an attempt in the 61st minute, John McGinn curled a yard wide of the diving Leno’s post. By that point the hosts had at least started to enjoy more sustained spells of possession even though they were routinely sloppy with it. Xhaka and Partey smothered the supply lines to Philippe Coutinho and Emiliano Buendía throughout; Arsenal still made better use of their attacks and Saka was soon worrying Martínez with a similar effort to tMcGinn’s.

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But the game was not safe and, as the final quarter approached, Arsenal were in potentially dangerous territory. When Ollie Watkins danced inside from the right, his low effort deflected off Kieran Tierney and clipped the outside the near post. Leon Bailey, Bertrand Traoré and Danny Ings were introduced to help the salvage operation and, much to an increasingly animated Arteta’s chagrin, the outcome remained in theoretical doubt until the end. Ings looped a header over and Martinez ventured up for a last-ditch free-kick but Arsenal rarely looked like being denied.

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