An onslaught played out in acrimony featured heroes and villains, arguments and controversy, but its ending was rarely in serious doubt. On a frenzied Friday night, Arsenal tore through an uninspired Aston Villa with blistering and, at times, bitter intent, as Emile Smith Rowe produced a standout performance under the gaze of Gareth Southgate in a 3-1 victory that could be considered a serious statement, if only Arsenal’s volatility under Mikel Arteta wasn’t already such a storied tradition.
The result does, if only briefly, propel Arsenal into the top half of the table, but for all their dominance, this surprisingly hostile clash of mid-table minds with European imaginations was not without its drama. Aston Villa will resent Craig Pawson’s decision to award a contentious penalty on the brink of half-time and Emiliano Martinez, Arsenal’s cult-idol turned public enemy, will rue a magnificent save that left Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a merciful rebound. Nevertheless, Arsenal were worthy of all three points, even as their nerves jittered in a frantic final 10 minutes when Jacob Ramsey sparked hope of the unlikeliest comeback.
It is a maddening trait, how Arsenal can see-saw so readily from excellency to ennui, but the lethargy that smothered their draw with Crystal Palace earlier this week was resoundingly banished. Mikel Arteta’s side burst out of the blocks with frothing intent and Villa, coming off the back of successive defeats with pressure building on Dean Smith, were the ones tranquillised. Within the first 10 minutes, Aubameyang miscued an audacious overhead kick from close-range, Nuno Tavares marked his full Premier League debut with a mazy run through four Villa defenders before blazing over the bar and the incessantly industrious Alexandre Lacazette’s foul in the build-up saw a goal disallowed. It was a riot in bad blood, as players squared up, studs were flared and yellow cards were brandished. But for all their fury, Villa couldn’t land a blow. And before long, Arsenal made theirs count.
Moments after Thomas Partey’s rebound had struck the crossbar from one set-piece, the midfielder was served a chance at redemption and jostled through a crowded six-yard-box to glance Smith Rowe’s corner in at the far post. The Emirates Stadium erupted with a sense of glee that was aided by more than just Friday night fever. After all, there are subplots galore to bind Arsenal and Aston Villa and explain the evening’s acrimony, from their old legacies to their modern transfer tussles, but the bottom line that links them is that these are two ambitious teams mired in mid-table, afflicted by bouts of inconsistency, riven by a frustration of failing to live up to their own ideals.
It was Arsenal who were determined to take control of that narrative, and it was Smith Rowe, the subject of two Villa bids this summer, who played the starring role. The 21-year-old injected purpose into every attack and combined brilliantly with Bukayo Saka, who defied injury fears to start and ran Matt Targett ragged on the right wing. If Smith Rowe was the beacon of creativity, Martinez was the figure of discord. The Argentine has made no secret of his delight in proving Arteta wrong, was roundly booed by supporters, and took delight in silencing them with a fantastic save at full-stretch with his trailing leg to divert Saka’s shot. His spotlight in the chaos was far from burnt out.
Moments before half-time, with Villa desperate to keep the deficit at one, Targett hacked at a loose ball between Lacazette’s legs in the box. Pawson initially waved away the striker’s appeals but, just as he was about to blow for the break, the referee was instructed to check the pitchside monitor. Upon closer inspection, he awarded a penalty, deeming Targett to have touched his opponent before the ball, even if the contact appeared slight. The stage was set for the sort of showdown Martinez was made famous.
He stared down Aubameyang with primal glee, offered a few taunting snipes, guessed correctly and made a terrific save down at his right. But he couldn’t turn the ball out of the striker’s path and Aubameyang lifted the rebound into the far corner. It was cruel on the goalkeeper, who roared in disbelieving horror, but no less than Arsenal deserved. They had been utterly dominant, with 14 shots to Villa’s nil, and could hardly have been further removed from the patternless desperation against Palace earlier this week.
There was no doubt Villa would offer a more robust fightback after the break and it arrived promptly. Danny Ings, a peripheral figure for the entirety of the first-half, had a penalty appeal denied and a goal-bound shot blocked. Leon Bailey, introduced from the bench, added an incisive threat and Villa poured forwards at every opportunity. In the end, though, it would inflict their own downfall. They failed to heed the warnings of two spurned counterattacks and soon afterwards Arsenal struck. It wasn’t without fortune as Smith Rowe’s shot cannoned off Tyrone Mings’s boot and then the inside of the near-post, but few would begrudge him that.
A three-goal lead offered security, even by Arsenal’s brittle standards, but was not without warnings. Emiliano Buendia raced through on goal and forced a fine save from Aaron Ramsdale, who was immediately serenaded with chants at Martinez’s expense. But as the pressure grew, Arsenal became stretched and, as the match entered its final 10 minutes, Ramsey curled a terrific shot into the top corner that left Ramsdale rooted on the spot. The echoes of calamity came into earshot but Arsenal, albeit frantically, staved them off. For Arteta and his side, this was a night to savour and a performance to ignite the well-worn cycle of hope again. For Villa, though, it was a stark reminder of the distance still to broach just to move into the top half, let alone European contention.