Arsenal earn high praise after vital win at Villa

Saka goal leaves Gunners well placed for Champions League action

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Villa Park was emptying at a rate of knots. All except a vocal corner, still fully populated by Arsenal fans.

The players they serenaded gathered in front of them, Bukayo Saka seeing a sign asking for his shirt and obliging. Granit Xhaka and Ben White also left the field topless, having provided supporters with souvenirs as they celebrated a victory whose importance was very evident.

“It was a big one,” said Mikel Arteta, but Arsenal may soon have rather more to celebrate. Four points clear of fifth place, still with a game in hand, they can start to see the Champions League looming on the horizon.

A sixth triumph in seven league games assumed bigger proportions after Wednesday’s loss to Liverpool but this week will not derail their season. Instead, Arsenal displayed the substance they have sometimes lacked, following a stylish start with a display of solidity.

“The team showed a lot of personality,” added Arteta after Arsenal chalked up five consecutive away league wins for the first time since 2015. “They are showing character, courage and quality. When we dominate like we did today we have to score the second and the third.”

The one they did get stemmed from their own, and it often does. Saka’s 10th goal of the season made him the joint top scorer with another academy product, Emile Smith Rowe. Five of them have come in his last five away league games and if the homegrown heroes can be symbolic scorers, they have also had a transformative effect.

Saka’s goal was Arsenal’s 2000th in the Premier League. It was no classic, but it might be invaluable. His low shot was neither the cleanest connection or headed for the corner of the net but, left partly unsighted by a mass of bodes in the box, Emi Martinez was unable to save.

It was merited. “We deserved to be behind in the first half,” said Steven Gerrard. “It was tough because we allowed it to be tough. We were second best. We lacked belief in ourselves collectively.”

With Villa penned in and Saka presenting Ashley Young with problems, Arsenal made a trademark swift start.

Villa side could have trailed sooner. The former Arsenal goalkeeper Martinez had to make a fine stop to spare Ezri Konsa an own goal and amid chances for Smith Rowe and Thomas Partey, who provided a platform in midfield.

“Thomas has played at his best level in three games in six days,” purred Arteta. He was deprived of the injured Aaron Ramsdale and the ill Gabriel Martinelli but Smith Rowe was hugely influential as he stood in for the winger. Much revolved around him, and he almost bundled in a Saka cross. Supplier then, scorer later, Saka departed early, his ankle bloodied by a challenge from Tyrone Mings but vowing to carry on running at defenders.

Ramsdale’s understudy Bernd Leno was altogether less prominent, which was a testament to his defence. He had conceded five goals in his previous Premier League outing, at Manchester City in August. On his return, Leno had a solitary save to make, parrying Philippe Coutinho's free kick deep into injury time. He was well protected.

Villa had no touch in the Arsenal box when it was still 0-0 and too few thereafter. John McGinn bent a shot just past the post. Ollie Watkins clipped the outside of the post with a shot that deflected off Kieran Tierney. Danny Ings looped a header on to the roof of the net.

None of it stopped Arsenal supporters from chorusing Arteta’s name. “It feels great,” he said.

Updated: March 19, 2022, 3:56 PM
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