Arsenal stunned by Unai Emery’s early trick as Aston Villa join the title race

Mikel Arteta looked down from above as his predecessor stole the stage and Aston Villa joined Arsenal in the title race. Unai Emery’s side extended their club-record home winning run to 15 consecutive matches after adding the second of two of the finest victories Villa Park has staged within the same week. Triumphant against the champions on Wednesday, Villa knocked down the side who started the weekend as leaders on Saturday night. Though those wins may share the elements of magnitude and scoreline, they could hardly have been more different in how they were achieved.

Villa’s energy and commitment was superb but Arsenal were wasteful and allowed three points and the chance to extend their lead over Manchester City to slip away. With Arteta suspended from the touchline, Arsenal were unable to produce another late goal and the manager departed the directors box seconds before the final whistle after Kai Havertz’s equaliser was disallowed for handball. Moments later, Emery was dancing down the touchline, having beaten the club who sacked him after 18 months for the second time and first since his return to the Premier League.

And what a return it is becoming. Title contenders? Emery does not even consider his side top-four contenders but the table is starting to tell a very different story. Villa are now two points off new leaders Liverpool and there is a gap starting to open up between them and fifth-placed Tottenham, who host Newcastle on Sunday. They won courtesy of the excellent John McGinn’s sixth-minute goal, stunning Arsenal early with a brilliant counter-punch. After smothering City, Villa were dominated by Arsenal but survived long spells of pressure to achieve another famous win.

Arsenal, though, ran out of steam. They had matched Villa’s fight to take control of the ferocious midfield battle but they lacked their usual clinical edge in front of goal. Martin Odegaard wasted the best of the opportunities but Arsenal also become the latest victims of Emery’s high-line, which caught out Gabriel Martinelli and then Bukayo Saka and denied Arteta’s side a second-half equaliser. After six wins in a row in all competitions, Arsenal go back to the drawing board and were shut out for the first time since defeat to Newcastle.

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Perhaps the same questions will return now after Arsenal become unstuck against another difficult, organised defence, even if it was one that takes a completely different shape to Eddie Howe’s side. But with Arsenal starting in second, Villa in third, these were also two high-class opponents, two teams who were in form and knew their plan: Villa’s defensive line remained absurdly high, squeezing the play into a frantic middle third; Arsenal stretched wider with Saka and Martinelli hugging the touchlines. But as Arsenal pressed, Villa lowered the bait and encouraged them on.

Both found the weakness in the opening minutes; the difference was Villa were clinical and Arsenal were not. First Saka played a long-range one-two with Martinelli, with switches from wing to wing. The England forward pulled off Lucas Digne’s shoulder but scuffed his finish from Martinelli’s excellent cross at the back post. Villa struck immediately and from the resulting goalkick. Arsenal were sucked into pressing Emi Martinez and Villa switched to the right to release Leon Bailey. The winger glided into the box before pulling back to McGinn, who turned and finished past David Raya.

John McGinn scored the only goal of the game (Jacob King/PA)

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Villa had scored late against City, they were in front early here and it perhaps didn’t suit them. Villa Park exploded as McGinn raced to the corner of the Holte End yet Arsenal were up for the fight and responded well. The contest became increasingly physical, particularly in midfield, but Arsenal forced mistakes from Villa. Led by Declan Rice and Odegarard, they won the ball high and did what City could not in midweek: create chances against Emery’s defensive trap.

Arteta would have felt his side had done enough to go into the break level. Saka tested Martinez after cutting inside Digne, then Odegaard pulled wide looking for the inside of the post. Gabriel released Martinelli, who lobbed Martinez and forced Diego Carlos to clear off the line, although he was offside. Gabriel Jesus set up Odegaard but Martinez read it well and dived to his right early, before Jesus shimmied past Ezri Konsa and brought another smart reaction from the former Arsenal goalkeeper.

If there was an added tension with Villa having a lead to defend, Arsenal resumed their pressure in the second half.

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Appeals for a penalty were waved away when Douglas Luiz caught Jesus in the box then, from Saka’s corner, Martinez flapped against Ollie Watkins and both were relieved when it rebounded onto the post. Before the hour, Zinchenko’s pass released Havertz and Odegaard was presented with Arsenal’s clearest chance of the game. The Arsenal captain sliced wide and then screamed into the night.

The Holte End roared in response and Villa improved when Arsenal started to commit further numbers forward. Moussa Diaby, on for the injured Bailey at the break, brought a threat on the counter and set up chances for Digne and Watkins, though Raya saved both low down.

Arsenal had found late goals in victories at Brentford and Luton but there would be no hat-trick: Havertz thought he had scrambled in a messy, 90th minute equaliser but referee Jarred Gillett ruled the ball had come off his hand before Martinez was beaten and the VAR did not disagree. “Clear and obvious,” Arteta said later. But when Villa held on, Arteta left his box seconds before the final whistle. He had already seen enough.


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