If the season was a few more months old and if Arsenal didn’t have a decade and a half of underperformance to harass them, it could be called the stuff of champions. Make no mistake, the league leaders maimed Aston Villa here: for most of the night it was just one game but a nasty upset was never out of the question as they led by one goal.
When Douglas Luiz duly swung one of his corner kicks moments after arriving as a substitute, 58,000 pairs of eyes could have rolled; they’ve seen it all before in a place that experiences false auroras like few others.
This time, however, they opened in awe as Gabriel Martinelli responded almost instantly and gave Mikel Arteta’s side exactly what they deserved.
With the caveat that Arsenal will ultimately be judged on how they handle such setbacks against better opponents than a dismal Villa, there is a growing sense that this team possesses a courage that so many of their predecessors lacked. They recovered from an equally poor concession to beat Fulham on Saturday; repeating the trick was on one level a reminder that they have rickets in them but, on another, proof that they have learned to clear their heads.
“It’s the mentality we want to show as a team and the character we want to show, to react immediately,” Arteta said of the winner, who came three minutes after Luiz caught up with Arsenal and confirmed his best start since. 2004. “Conceding goals is part of the game; it is the next action.
Martinelli took his goal superbly, controlling a half-volley at the far post after Bukayo Saka clipped a teasing cross his way. The whole sequence was about the difference between these teams: the move started when Martinelli gained ground before finding Takehiro Tomiyasu, who then moved on to Saka, but Villa’s defense seemed to think their job was done once the Brazilian was out of possession. It was unmarked applying the finish seconds later and Steven Gerrard regretted wasting a lifeline.
“We have the game [to] right where we want it and then we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “We have to blame ourselves for conceding so quickly. We talk about it almost every day and it’s really frustrating that the messages don’t seem to get through.
Even if they do by Saturday, it would take a brave onlooker to imagine Villa getting a result against a rampant Manchester City. Three points in five games is a bad start and likely to get worse; their performances offer no relief and Gerrard admitted that the pressure on his job was already mounting. “If I stood here and said I didn’t care, you would look at me like I was from another planet.”
In the first half, Arsenal hammered their side with football from another galaxy, helped by the fact that Villa offered nothing but late challenges and scrappy fouls. If they had been set up to earn a point, the number of times Arsenal exposed them made it a mockery; if Gerrard wanted them to attack, a complete lack of cohesion meant they didn’t show it.
Gabriel Jesus forced the wobbly Emiliano Martínez to two saves with oblique efforts and Gabriel Magalhães went close twice. Saka missed a keeper at the far post and, before the interval, Martinelli drew a flying save from the Villa keeper. On the half-hour, Jesus dispatched the loose ball after Martínez reacted haphazardly to Granit Xhaka’s deflected cross shot, but Arsenal should have been out of sight.
It meant that Douglas Luiz’s equalizer, thwarting a boxed Aaron Ramsdale with an inswinger for his second goal of the season, felt perversely inevitable as a tighter second period wore on. Ramsdale had just been tested for the first time by Leon Bailey and, despite being a passenger, Villa hung on in a position of relative strength.
Arsenal brought them down quickly and Arteta will be hoping to keep his side’s momentum going. Albert Sambi Lokonga did well in his first start since April but they are light in central midfield, with Mohamed Elneny ruled out for a time and Thomas Partey also down.
“If the right player is available and we can do it, we’ll try,” Arteta said of any Deadline additions.
In the heat of the moment, however, he could savor the prospects offered by Martinelli’s decision-maker. “When you start having that belief and creating those moments, it’s not just us who believe, the crowd believes,” he said. “When that connection happens, anything is possible.”
Gabriel Martinelli sinks Aston Villa to maintain Arsenal’s perfect start