Arsenal took another giant step towards securing a top-four finish in the Premier League after holding on to secure a vital 1-0 victory over Aston Villa at Villa Park. Mikel Arteta’s side knew they could move further clear of Manchester United if they secured three points in Birmingham and got off to the best possible start.
Bukayo Saka scored from outside of the box on the bounce to give Arsenal a deserved lead as Arteta’s side dominated the first-half proceedings. The visitors had several chances to double their advantage but failed to take them, although Villa’s improved performance in the second half failed to produce an equaliser after Ollie Watkins hit the post.
The result means Arsenal are now four points clear in fourth place with a game in hand on Man United and look to be in a commanding position to secure top-tier European football for next season. Here, Express Sport assesses five things we learned from the Gunners’ victory at Villa Park.
Saka’s landmark goal
Aston Villa tried their best to limit the influence of Bukayo Saka, with a mix tactical fouls and doubling up on the explosive winger. But try as they might, they could not handle the attacker’s creative influence.
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As Gabriel Agbonlahor aptly summarised, even the best left-back in the world would struggle against him in this form. Subjecting a 35-year-old Ashley Young to a player of his pace, energy and clever footwork was quite simply cruel, but with Lucas Digne out, Steven Gerrard had little choice.
He simply did not stop running down the flank, making unselfish runs to open up the space. And when he was on the ball, Saka often found a team-mate with a precise pass. His goal was reminiscent of how Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg would find the back of the net with incredible technique.
That goal means Saka now has seven goals in his last 11 appearances now, with 10 overall this season. But more significantly, it was the 2,000th goal Arsenal have scored in the Premier League, becoming the third team to reach the milestone. Perhaps it was only fitting that their best player their season so far and their most exciting talent in a decade was the one to score it.
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Smith Rowe proves a point
Arsenal legend Martin Keown warned that Emile Smith Rowe had a “point to prove” after being brought back into the starting XI to deputise for Gabriel Martinelli, who was unavailable due to illness.
Some may disagree with Keown’s comments, given Smile Rowe is Arsenal’s top goalscorer this season — and that only adds to the intrigue as to why he had been left out in recent weeks. But you don’t change a winning team and before their 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, Arsenal had won five games in a row.
Much of what Arsenal came from Smith Rowe’s positive movement down the left and he almost telepathically found Martin Odegaard, such is the impressive link-up between the two. The 21-year-old looked sharp and eager to impress, knowing competition is rife for places in the attacking midfield trifecta.
With him in the side, the Gunners are much more fluid in attack and more responsible in possession. Arteta must consider that in the future if he wants to find a way to keep Smith Rowe and Martinelli happy.
Steven Gerrard must be feeling increasingly anxious which version of his team is going to step off the bus when he turns up for a game. Because on this basis, the Aston Villa team’s performance seems to be different every week.
They simply failed to get going early on and that dampened the spirits of the crowd. Worse than that, it gave Arsenal a sense of comfort as they sprayed passes around with swagger and dominated possession.
The opening goal mess from Gerrard’s perspective. First, his players failed to spot the quick free-kick and it left them exposed on the wing as Cedric floated in the ball. Then they failed to clear in their own box, resulting in a quick game of pinball, and Saka took full advantage.
This was Villa’s 15th defeat of the season, which is three more than 19th-placed Burnley have lost and the same tally as Brentford and Leeds. Somehow, the former Rangers boss needs to find a way to get his side into a rhythm.
Arsenal embracing Wenger’s philosophy
There was a passing sequence in the first half that was simply mesmeric, and one right out of the Arsene Wenger playbook. From left to right, Arsenal shifted the ball with silky one-touch passing and overlapping runs.
Eventually, it came to Smith Rowe at an awkward height and he couldn’t find the target. In truth, that was one of several moves pieced together by the visitors as they carved apart the Villa defence at will.
In the third year of Arteta’s reign, there is a clear identity for this Arsenal side, one that hadn’t been seen under Unai Emery or in the turbulent first 18 months of the Spaniard’s time at the club.
But it just goes to show that Arsenal are not just a solid defensive unit that keep the ball to wear out the opposition. They are bringing back the days of attractive football that was seen at the height of Wenger’s reign — and that is the ultimate compliment that can be paid to Arteta right now.
Leno an able deputy
After conceding nine goals in three games at the start of the season, Bernd Leno was quickly discarded by Mikel Arteta and replaced by Aaron Ramsdale. But with the 23-year-old ruled out due to a hip problem, Leno was handed a rare opportunity to impress.
There were no signs of cobwebs to brush off for the German stopper, who looked commanding when coming to claim the ball despite being rarely tested in the first half. His confidence in the defenders in front of him seemed to be reciprocated as Arsenal looked sturdy at the back.
Even if Leno does leave on a free transfer this summer when his contract expires, he can leave on a high knowing that he has contributed to Arsenal’s efforts to return to the Champions League after five years away.
There is no timeframe on when Ramsdale is expected back from injury but Arteta will be glad to know that the man he used to rely on every week can still do a job for him when required.