Aston Villa (0) 0 Arsenal (1) 1
Villa Park, Trinity Road, Birmingham B6 6HE
Saturday, 19th March 2022. Kick-off time: 12.30pm
(4-3-3) Bernd Leno; Cédric Soares, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhães, Kieran Tierney; Martin Ødegaard, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka; Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette, Emile Smith-Rowe.
Substitutes: Rob Holding, Nicolas Pépé, Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Mohamed Elneny, Eddie Nketiah, Arthur Okonkwo, Zak Swanson, Omari Hutchinson.
Scorers: Bukayo Saka (29 mins)
Yellow Cards: Granit Xhaka, Cédric Soares
Arsenal Possession Percentage: 52%
Referee: Andy Madley
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt, Wade Smith
Fourth Official: Jonathan Moss
VAR Team at Stockley Park: VAR Graham Scott; AVAR Darren Cann
Mikel Arteta has made two changes from the side which was beaten at home by Liverpool last Wednesday evening. Our goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is out with a hip injury, whilst forward Gabriel Martinelli is ill for this, the last Premier League outing before next week’s international break. Bernd Leno and Emile Smith-Rowe replace them in today’s starting eleven; this match is, as all of them are at this time of year, a “must-win” game, as it is vitally important to keep the kettle boiling, so to speak, in order to remain in fourth place, no matter what situation occurs. Additionally, we have also won our last four away games in the Premiership, scoring thirteen goals in the process, so the omens are good.
The home side kicked off proceedings today, in the bright Birmingham sunshine at Villa Park. Early on, after the initial shot by Emile Smith-Rowe that went over the bar, we started to play good, close football thus pressing Aston Villa back into their own half, and sometimes even deeper, back into their own penalty area. After a dubious Villa free-kick on the edge of our penalty area, we broke out quickly and Emile Smith-Rowe found Martin Ødegaard, who teed up Thomas Partey on the edge of the Villa box, but his weak shot was easily saved by former Gunner goalkeeper. Emiliano Martinez. A couple of minutes later, Bukayo Saka’s pinpoint cross was turned towards his own net by Ezri Konsa, but Emiliano Martinez reacted brilliantly to turn the ball behind for a corner, which although came to nothing, was still a valuable opportunity to score the opening goal. Arsenal were constantly knocking on the door, playing intelligent possession football and having complete control of the match so far. Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard have linked up magnificently once again down the right hand side of the pitch causing serious issues in the Villa defence. Bukayo Saka got to the byeline and cut the ball back towards Emile Smith-Rowe, who fired the ball wide. The home side broke through our midfield and made a dash for our goal with Ollie Watkins leading the charge, but thankfully Cédric Soares intercepted him and cleared the danger well, with the resulting corner going absolutely nowhere thankfully. All our hard work paid off, when just before the half hour mark, the home side only half cleared Cédric Soares’ strong cross into the box, and after a bit of pinball, it fell perfectly for Bukayo Saka, who beat Emiliano Martinez with a low drive from just outside the penalty area. Just after the goal, Tyrone Mings quite rightly received a yellow card from referee Andy Madley after a reckless challenge on our goalscorer, and although he returned to the fray, Bukayo Saka was limping badly for a while. Three players from Aston Villa have been booked by referee Andy Madley already, which showed their frustration and inability to adquately stop our chaps in their desire to score. Granit Xhaka received a pointless yellow card just before half-time, and although there was a heart-stopping moment when Bernd Leno collided with Gabriel during injury-time, nothing else of any note happened, and so we went into the break one goal ahead.
Arsenal started the second half fairly much the same way as they finished the first; in control. Just after the restart, Alexandre Lacazette’s shot was blocked on the edge of the penalty area by Jacob Ramsey but we won the ball back, and it fell to Cédric Soares, who whipped a cross in from the right, which hit Ashley Young in the face and rolled out for an Arsenal corner, which went nowhere, sadly. We moved forward through the gears, and deep into the penalty area, Ezri Konsa did well to block Martin Ødegaard’s shot at the expense of yet another Arsenal corner, which again, was cleared adequately by the Villa defence. Cédric Soares received the fifth yellow card of the match after a seemingly innocuous tackle on Ashley Young, and although the corresponding free-kick disappeared into the ether, the home side were starting to make inroads into getting back into the match, but our defenders managed to block them at every situation. More intricate play carried on between Bukayo Saka and Martin Ødegaard which ended with the former shooting at goal from inside the Villa penalty area; the ball took a deflection off a defender on its way behind, but we failed to make the most from the resulting corner, sadly. Thomas Partey was booked for a ridiculous challenge just after the hour mark, and shortly afterwards, an Ollie Watkins shot was deflected off Kieran Tierney, and worryingly hit the outside of Bernd Leno’s left hand post for a corner. After our defence cleared the danger, Bukayo Saka was replaced by Nicolas Pépé with about twenty minutes of the match remaining, and a few mintues later a very lacklustre Alexandre Lacazette (who handed the captain’s armband to Kieran Tierney as he exited the pitch) was substituted for a vibrant Eddie Nketiah in order for us to attempt to grab a second goal of the afternoon. Granit Xhaka went to ground after being caught on the back of the head by Philippe Coutinho, who received a yellow card for his trouble, and as the match started to wend its way into the last ten minutes or so, the home side tried to bring the game to us, which at times was a wee bit troublesome for the back four. Because of this development, Mikel Arteta changed things around again when he brought on Rob Holding for Martin Ødegaard with just five minutes of the match remaining. In the four minutes’ injury time, the home side appeared to find a second wind (as if there was ever a first for them in this match) and right on the stroke of full-time, the home side got a free-kick on the edge of our penalty area. Philippe Coutinho whipped a deceiving ball towards our goal, and as Bernd Leno stretched across to push the ball away, referee Andy Madley blew the whistle for full-time. Thankfully.
No doubt about it, although the scoreline doesn’t truly reflect our performance, this was an extremely important victory for us today, hence the jubilant scenes at the final whistle. We were by far the dominant side out of the two teams this afternoon, and if extra points were awarded for possession and dominance, we would surely have had quite a few extra notches on our belts. With so many fine performances out there today, it would be hard to pick just one outstanding Gunner, but if pressed, it would surely have to be Bukayo Saka. His vision, workrate, running off the ball, in fact his all-round play is truly a sight to behold; and let us not forget either, he can score winning goals in important matches too! Additionally, to add extra icing on the cake, Arsenal have today become the third side to score 2,000 goals in the Premier League alongside Manchester United (2,176) and Liverpool (2,002). It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?
Remember everyone, keep the faith, get behind the team and the manager, as this season is going to be crucial for our future success in all competitions. Stick with the winners. Our next match: Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Monday, 4th Aptil at 8.00pm (Premier League). Be there, if you can. Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten: Arsenal v Racing Club de Paris 1930-1962 by Steve Ingless (Rangemore Publications, ISBN 978-1-5272-0135-4) is now available on Amazon.