Arsenal extended their unbeaten streak to six games with an impressive 3-1 victory over Aston Villa at the Emirates on Friday night.
The Gunners were superior to their opponents in every department. They showed resilience in defence, composure in midfield and menace in attack, and Aston Villa could not live with their energy and intensity.
Goals from Thomas Partey, Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith Rowe put Dean Smith’s men to the sword, while Arsenal also hit the post and had another goal chalked off in a debatable decision.
Arsenal Put Ambitious Rivals in Their Place
It felt like a symbolic win for Arsenal. They lost home and away to Aston Villa last season, leading some plucky pundits to suggest that Smith’s team could replace the Gunners in the in the upper echelons of the Premier League.
Arsenal made a mockery of that notion on Friday night. Aston Villa did not manage a single shot on goal in the first half, and Arsenal’s dominance was absolute. Jacob Ramsey hit a late consolation for the visitors, but the Gunners were home and dry by then.
Emiliano Martinez has been extremely vocal since leaving the club to join Villa last summer, especially after keeping clean sheets in both meetings between the teams last term. The Emirates faithful revelled in the opportunity to roar “Aaron Ramsdale, he’s better than you!” at the Argentinian stopper after watching him pick the ball out of the net on three occasions.
It was also fitting that Smith Rowe delivered a man of the match performance. Aston Villa felt sure enough of their station to make two bids for the young playmaker in the summer. Arsenal swiftly rejected both offers and tied Smith Rowe down to a new contract, but it spoke volumes about Villa’s ambitions to overtake the Gunners on the pitch.
Yet they could not lay a glove on him during this game. He was on another level from a technical standpoint, and Arsenal in general looked quicker, stronger, livelier and more incisive than Aston Villa throughout the contest.
Unbeaten Run Extends
The win saw Arsenal climb into the top half of the table for the first time this season. Many fans were calling for Mikel Arteta’s head after they lost their first three games of the season, but he has turned things around.
The Gunners now have four wins and two draws from their last six games. Drawing with Brighton and Crystal Palace is nothing to brag about, but they deserve credit for beating Aston Villa and Tottenham, while also overcoming the physical challenge presented by Burnley and Norwich.
Some fans might also be inclined to excuse Arsenal for losing the first three games of the campaign. They were missing a large cohort of first-team stars due to injury and Covid-19, so it was perhaps unsurprising to see them lose to Premier League champions Man City, European champions Chelsea and a Brentford team that went on to beat West Ham and draw with Liverpool.
A Work in Progress
The Gunners have looked a lot stronger since welcoming key players back into the fold. We now have a clear idea of Mikel Areta’s first choice team: Ramsdale in goal, a back four of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney, with Partey next to Granit Xhaka in midfield, and Bukayo Saka, Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard buzzing about behind Aubameyang.
That team looks solid at the back, strong in midfield and full of creativity and dynamism in attack. The Gunners are clearly not at the same level as Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City, but they should feel confident in their ability to overtake some of the teams above them in the table.
They have more quality than Everton, West Ham and Brighton, so they should be able to challenge for a top six finish. Spurs have regressed considerably this season, while Leicester also struggle in the absence of Wilfred Ndidi, so Arsenal might be able to clinch fifth. It is telling that they are joint fifth, along with Spurs, in the fixed odds betting on the Premier League winner market, ahead of the likes of West Ham, Everton and Leicester.
If anyone is feeling especially optimistic, they could take a look at Man Utd’s struggles in recent weeks – the Red Devils lost 1-0 to Aston Villa, drew 1-1 with Everton and lost 4-2 to Leicester – and make a case for Arsenal sneaking a top four finish.
Expectations for the Season
Arsenal certainly have a golden opportunity to challenge for fourth. Their rivals are all playing midweek football in Europe, whereas the Gunners can spend more time on the training pitch preparing for their next league games. They still have depth within their squad – Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares looked strong deputising for Xhaka and Tierney on Friday, while Alexandre Lacazette has been very sharp and Nicolas Pepe is capable of the odd moment of brilliance – so they should be well prepared for the rigours of the winter campaign.
They also have the youngest squad in the Premier League, so energy should not be a problem. It also leaves plenty of scope for development.
Yet a top four finish seems like wishful thinking. Realistically, Arsenal could hope to claim sixth place and mount a serious assault of the FA Cup this season. They have won the cup four times in the last eight years, and many of these players know how to get the job done in knockout competitions.
They should be fresher than Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man Utd, Leicester, West Ham and Spurs – all of whom are in Europe – for the cup games, and they could capitalise. If they get back into Europe and win some silverware, it would represent clear progress under Arteta. If they end up in eighth place for the third consecutive season and fail to win a trophy, it would be time to bring in a new manager.