Arsenal bounce back to seal stunning late comeback win over Aston Villa


Aston Villa had tried to kick Arsenal when they were down. Instead, Mikel Arteta’s side stand up, in the most scarcely possible way possible. On a thunderous afternoon at Villa Park, Jorginho’s stunning strike from the edge of the box cannoned off the underside of the crossbar, rebounding off the back of former Arsenal goalkeeper Emi Martinez, denying former Arsenal manager Unai Emery, and, somehow, keeping Arsenal’s Premier League title bid alive.

This was a statement response from Arteta’s challengers: they faced not only the shortest possible turnaround from Wednesday’s defeat at home to title rivals Manchester City, a result that threatened to suck the air out of their challenge as Pep Guardiola’s side returned to the top of the table, but also an Aston Villa side who sensed an opportunity. This was as good a time to play Arsenal as you could hope for, and yet as Gabriel Martinelli raced away to score Arsenal’s fourth into an empty net in the 98th minute, sealing a 4-2 comeback win, it’s hard to imagine how Arteta’s team could have reacted to their defeat to City in a better way.

The scenes in the away end at full-time told you that, and with the four-game blip is over, it’s now about how this dramatic lift win can lift Arsenal and give them a second wind in the title race. Manchester CIty will certainly feel it. But at times here, Arsenal’s dip in form threatened to turn into a five-game slump, especially as first Ollie Watkins and then Philippe Coutinho fired Villa in front, before Villa rattled the crossbar when chasing a winner late on.

Arsenal could have quite easily crumbled. Following the physical and mental toll of the defeat to Manchester City, as well as the rough treatment they faced from Emery’s side, Arsenal could have collapsed further after going behind to Watkins’ fifth-minute opener and then Coutinho’s finish, which restored Villa’s lead in the first half. On weary legs and tired minds, that perhaps was the expected response: but Arsenal did not show it,

It was illustrated by the relentlessness of the outstanding Bukayo Saka. He crashed in Arsenal’s first equaliser on 16 minutes, dragging his side back into the game after their nightmare start, and from there was kicked every time he touched the ball. Saka was targeted, fouled, booed, and yet continued to demand the ball. He was hobbling from as early as midway through the first half, but was the best player in the second. Villa’s treatment provoked a response out of him, as Saka got up to shove Coutinho after the Brazilian committed the latest foul against him, but it was exactly the attitude Arsenal needed.

Saka lifted Arsenal and when Martin Odegaard and Eddie Nketiah followed his lead the visitors were comfortably the better team. They finished the stronger side after Oleksandr Zinchenko equalised for the second time - his first goal for the club barely celebrated for even a moment - and it was Saka who was invariably involved. The England international had gone down holding his ankle after scuffing a shot wide on 52 minutes, his afternoon seemingly over, but got up to again run at Alex Moreno.

Saka’s shot was blocked and from the corner, Odegaard pulled it back to Zinchenko, who rifled in his first goal for the club. It had been coming. With Villa’s aggressive start now tamed, Emery’s team were pushed back into their half. Nketiah clipped the top of the crossbar with a back-post header, and the chances continued to flow after Zinchenko ran straight back to the centre-circle.

The message was clear: but it started to look as if the winner Zinchenko was signalling for would not come. Odegaard had his side’s best chance after Nketiah robbed Ezri Konsa on the edge of his box and pulled it back. Odegaard had time to pick his finish but dragged the shot wide of goal. It looked like one of those defining moments in a title race when an opportunity slips by. Nketiah also should have done better after being slipped through, only to blaze over the bar after opening the angle. Saka, an effervescent force here, then took a pass from Jorginho on the turn but fired straight at Martinez.

By then, it felt like a long time since Watkins and Coutinho had both Villa Park and Arsenal rocking but Leon Bailey brought fresh threat from the bench. After taking the ball down on the wing with an exquisite touch and driving at goal, Aaron Ramsdale produced an even better one to tip his fierce shot onto the crossbar. The substitute Jhon Duran then had another opportunity to drive at the Arsenal goal, only this time his shot on the counter-attack was tame.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Jorginho made sure it was not the final flourish of a thrilling afternoon. Emery had spoken respectfully of Arsenal ahead of his first meeting with his former club in the Premier League, expressing only gratitude to the club after his year and a half spell in charge, but behind the scenes the Spaniard must have fired Villa up as he sent his team out with the aim of adding to Arsenal’s four-game winless run.

Villa were tenacious and frenetic off the ball in the first half , and clinical in punishing Arsenal’s lapses following their short turnaround. Arteta made just two changes following the defeat to City, but Leandro Trossard’s first Premier League start did not bring the energy Arteta demanded. To begin with, Arsenal looked short of that across the pitch, and it looked as if Coutinho’s goal on 31 minutes further dented their confidence after Saka had thundered in a quick equaliser.

Arsenal had got off to the worst possible start, falling behind inside five minutes. Their run of recent results had coincided with opposition teams figuring out a weakness in the Gunners’ armour, with first Everton playing long to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and then Brentford hitting Ivan Toney as they dropped precious points in the title race. It was an approach replicated by Pep Guardiola with Erling Haaland on Wednesday, as the Manchester City manager compromised his style to exploit William Saliba.

Villa also went direct as they released Watkins, but Emery did not need to alter any of his team’s plans in order to get behind Arsenal. Instead, it was a textbook goal from the Villa striker. Saliba and Ben White had already looked uncertain with Watkins pulling into his favoured left channel and when Matty Cash robbed Zinchenko, Arsenal were faced with exactly that. Cash clipped the ball into the space Watkins wanted. He isolated Saliba, who backed off, and Watkins did superbly to thrash a left-footed shot past Ramsdale.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

It was not a complicated goal to score but that approach suited Villa. Emery may not have the players who best suit his 4-4-2 system but he is managing to get the best out of them. Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara compounded Thomas Partey’s absence in midfield for Arsenal, while John McGinn buzzed and drifted inside to add numbers from the right. For Villa, a basic approach still required energy and commitment and Emery’s side had that. Still, Arsenal controlled possession. How Villa needed a moment of quality from Coutinho and his first goal of the season.

And to Villa’s credit, in between a lot of fouls and rough treatment of Arsenal players, it was a moment of pure quality that restored their lead. Emery’s side had worked it well to play out and find Moreno on the overlap behind White. His pull-back was for Emiliano Buendia but the Argentine dummied and the pass slipped through Granit Xhaka’s legs. It found Coutinho, who steadied himself with a touch before sending Ramsdale the wrong way with the finish.

Saka led the reaction: Arsenal found Ben White again on the outside and Tyrone Mings created Villa a problem instead of saving one. The centre-back headed White’s cross away from his near post but straight back into danger. Saka in this mood does not need an invitation. His finish was thundered past Martinez. Aston Villa responded by trying to kick Saka out of the game and off the pitch. It didn’t work: Arsenal stood up, and this team proved they are not going to go down without a fight.