LONDON — There have been sufficient false dawns for the Mikel Arteta project that it would be unwise to ascribe any game as the moment it went “bang,” as he would describe it, without a fair chunk of hindsight. However, as a blueprint for what Arsenal could be one need look no further than this impressive 3-1 win over Aston Villa.
The Emirates Stadium was rocking. Throughout his tenure, Arteta has been at pains to point out how much he and his players need that support. The players fed the collective energy and fed off it, pressing with an intensity that is at best seen in patches, stringing together passing moves and taking shots at volume. Thomas Partey’s first goal for Arsenal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s volleyed rebound to a penalty and a deflected strike from Emile Smith Rowe were enough to secure three points against an opponent who seemed utterly shellshocked by this invigorating, effervescent side.
The win is only enough to squeeze the Gunners into the lower reaches of the top half, some way short of where they aspire to be, but more performances like this and Arteta can afford to start looking up.
In a sense, this was a rerun of the first 10 minutes against Crystal Palace, the period leading up to Aubameyang’s opener, but this time it was elongated over the full 45. In every facet of the game, Arsenal were exceptional. The numbers bore it out. For the first time since Arsene Wenger’s final home match in charge, they denied a Premier League opponent a single shot, let alone one on target, in the first half.
In terms of expected goals (xG), the 2.57 they registered in the first half was the highest in a top-flight match since the start of the 2017-18 season. That number was artificially inflated by Emiliano Martinez saving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty only to see the rebound slotted beyond him. Discount that from the equation and it still beats the free-flowing victory over Everton early in the captain’s time at the club to top spot in the charts. It was as complete a performance as any Premier League manager could hope for.
There may have been some fortune in the penalty they were awarded on the stroke of halftime, referee Craig Pawson using the on field monitor to conclude that Matt Targett had got more of Alexandre Lacazette than the ball, but that balanced out an altogether more convincing shout earlier in the half when a free kick had been awarded for a coming together between Ezri Konsa and Lacazette the defender seemed to initiate by grasping a chunk of opposition jersey.
If not a penalty, it was probably a 50-50 that should not have led to the ruling out of Aubameyang’s side footed finish to give them a nine-minute lead.
These players seemed to have swiftly learned the lessons of Monday. The intensity did not abate after Partey’s opener. If anything, they and the goalscorer himself — whose two excellent chances from headers, one converted, might encourage him to kick his addiction to low value efforts from 30-plus yards out — became more aggressive. Saka ought to have done better with his first-time finish from Nuno Tavares’ cross, too close to Emiliano Martinez’s outstretched legs.
Arteta had also learned his lessons. Lacazette was inserted from the outset after his point-saving cameo on Monday, he proved to be the accelerant to those around him. Suddenly, Aubameyang had someone to combine with. Bukayo Saka and Smith Rowe weren’t being asked to thread the needle over 15 yards to a lone striker, but instead had someone dropping deep to give and go. Arsenal seemed to have no idea how to break down a back three in earlier games this season. Now their No. 9’s movement was creating seams for him and others to attack.
Arsenal had moved on from their disappointing result last time out. Aston Villa seemed to have come straight off the pitch from theirs. This was a rerun of the final 10 minutes against Wolverhampton Wanderers, when they had turned a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat. Certainly, they did not seem ready for the intensity of the occasion, either from their opponents on the pitch nor the boisterous Emirates Stadium crowd who serenaded Martinez with a recurring chant of “Aaron Ramsdale, he’s better than you”.
Even after Jacob Ramsey’s elegantly taken goal in the 82nd minute, they were second to loose balls, John McGinn and then Leon Bailey running into Gabriel-shaped roadblocks.
Villa were timid in every tackle and seemed to have no plan for progressing the ball up to their front two of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. Until a shot early in the second half, you could have been forgiven for thinking Emiliano Buendia was elsewhere, so starved was he of time on the ball.
It made for a stark contrast with the other man in the No. 10. Villa had submitted two offers for Smith Rowe in the summer, deemed so derisory by Arsenal as to sour relationships between the clubs and their fanbases. If picking a star performer seems unreasonable after such a complete team performance the youngster was certainly among those who shone the brightest. Whenever there was an attack to be built, he was on hand to offer assistance. Passes that have not always found their man in recent games were in just the right spot to trouble the visiting defense.
The goal, when it came, brought with it a release of emotion that can only come from a boyhood Gooner, playing the sort of football he grew up watching. Certainly, Aubameyang’s clipped pass over the top was one to rank among the many great assists this team has produced. There might have been a hefty slice of luck in the way the shot skewed Tyrone Mings but the sheer jubilance of its celebration felt like a vision for what Arteta wants his Arsenal to be: Good football, yes, but played with emotion, building a connection with 60,000-odd supporters in the ground and the millions beyond. More of this and that bond may grow into something that can feed more nights like Friday.