Although the fact that Arsenal need their backs against the wall to get the best out of the team shows a lack of discipline, the fightback with ten men showed great character and bodes well.
Rare that an Arsenal player is booed off by his own fans. But that’s what happened to Granit Xhaka – the captain indicating a serious disconnect somewhere along the line.
There were mild booing outbreaks during his time on the pitch, and each mistake he made, from giving away an unnecessary foul and getting booked to losing control in a good position in Villa’s area – they grew in volume.
As predicted in the preview – based on this season’s performances and results, Villa are an outfit not to be taken lightly. They were the better team in the first twenty, as Arsenal’s passing was often off key, as they looked like a team of individuals, compared to Villa’s solid teamwork.
The Villa fans, bringing loud vocal support and creating an atmosphere, sang: “Champions of Europe, you’ll never be that.” Arsenal fans retorted: “You’re going down. You’re going down”.
One of the best interviews this correspondent did was in the Eighties with Ron Saunders who created the European Cup winning team – of Withe, Shaw, Morley, Mortimer, Cowans, Swain, McNaught, Evans and the ex-Arsenal goalie, Jimmy Rimmer. And good to see a solid old traditional English club back in the Premiership.
Arsenal were poor in the first half. Was this nerves through the criticism from last week? Or a hangover from Frankfurt? Whatever – nothing was coming off with plenty of passes going astray, the pressing ineffective and defensive disorganisation – plain to see.
A misplaced Xhaka pass saw Trezeguet scoot away down the right leading to a McGinn shot. Several minutes later the same combo saw Leno save sharply.
Sokratis has a habit of coming to the half-way line and was out of position as Villa mounted another counter. El Ghazi was ahead of Maitland Niles nearing the penalty area and was brought down resulting in a yellow.
Pepe tricked his way into a shooting position but his effort was deflected over, and Aubameyang worked a shooting space – but Heaton gathered low down.
On 20 another foray down the Villa left, saw El Ghazi in space with Maitland Niles backing off and Pepe turning his back. A curling cross was deflected in by the onrushing and unmarked McGinn.
Saka, gaining his first Arsenal Premiership start, and showing huge latent potential, worked some shooting space in the centre, but it went just wide.
But Arsenal’s poor defending caught up with them even more, as Maitland Niles mistimed a tackle on Taylor with both players hurt. Ref John Moss hovered over Ainsley’s prostrate body like the grim reaper ready to swoop, being advised by hordes of ‘spiritual’ advisors in red, white, claret and blue. The Arsenal back was a little unfortunate. The first yellow could have been accidental. It is his second red card following being dismissed for James Maddison’s dive.
Chambers came on for Saka after half time. But like the first half, Villa showed attacking resolve with El Ghazi swing in a dangerous cross, and Mings putting in a low cross nearly deflected into the net by Sokratis.
But Guendouzi was the warrior galvanising the ten men, picking up a loose ball beating two defenders, driving into the area before being brought down by Engels. Pepe was given a chance for his first Arsenal goal as he hit the penalty hard down the middle.
At half-time, an unrecognisable ex-manager – Bruce Rioch was talking about a game when another important player, Denis B, scored his first Arsenal goal – against Southampton – for lift-off. Hopefully it will settle the Ivorian and take the pressure off. Although he has a casual style – it could be deceptive.
But, no sooner had Arsenal equalised than Grealish went on a mazy run to the byline and crossed for a smart tap in from Wesley.
Again, it was Guendouzi, justifying his national call-up, who set the ball rolling with a dangerous curling cross which Chambers volleyed for Aubameyang. Mings only partially cleared, and the substitute controlled it and dinked it into the far corner of the net with the aplomb of a striker. Good moment for him – as he was becoming somewhat a forgotten figure – but could be increasingly important as the season rocks on.
Ten-man Arsenal were dominating possession now – helped by Torriera coming on for Xhaka. Willock came on for Ceballos. Arsenal were pressing closer now and a high press saw Aubameyang run towards the area, brought down by Engels on 82. The free kick on the edge of the area was expertly drilled home through the Villa wall by the Gabonese.
Arsenal saw out the remaining minutes – getting another two yellows (Leno for perceived time-wasting [what about Heaton?] and Aubameyang for persistent fouling.
A goal-bound Villa shot was intercepted by Sokratis. Did he move his shoulder to the ball? Was it too close for a penalty? All part of the harum-scarum which is Arsenal matches these days. Bad for fans with high-blood pressure but good for the balance sheet, as live TV will be in more demand.
Emery said that “we had to play with our hearts and heads in the second half.” Leno said that the team had nothing to lose at half time.
The fine for seven cautions will be worth it in the context – three points with ten men and a goal down, but probably more importantly the effect on team-spirit for the games ahead.
Arsenal: Leno (Booked 90), Maitland-Niles (Booked 41) Papastathopoulos, David Luiz, Kolasinac, Guendouzi (Booked 44), Xhaka (Booked 35, Substituted for Willock 72), Pépé (Booked 85), Ceballos Substituted for Torreira 72), Saka( Substituted for Chambers 45),Aubameyang (Booked 90)
Aston Villa: Heaton, Guilbert, Engels (Booked 83), Mings, Taylor, McGinn, Nakamba (Substituted Hourihane 85), Grealish, Trézéguet (Substituted for El Mohamady 68), Wesley, El Ghazi (Substituted for Lansbury 86)