Report and free match highlights from the clash between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park; Bukayo Saka's fifth away league goal of the season helps Gunners establish four-point cushion in fourth place; Ashley Young felt Arsenal's full-time celebrations were over the top
Sunday 20 March 2022 07:23, UK
Arsenal tightened their grip on fourth spot in the Premier League as Bukayo Saka's first-half strike was enough to secure a 1-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday.
Mikel Arteta's side dominated possession and chances for the first period of the game and got their reward in the 30th minute.
A short free-kick out on the right was played into the box and, when it fell to dangerman Saka on the edge, he beat Emiliano Martinez with a shot that came through a crowd of defenders.
Villa, who remain ninth in the Premier League on 36 points from 29 games, belatedly rallied as Ollie Watkins' deflected effort struck the outside of the post after 68 minutes.
Arsenal withstood late pressure to move onto 54 points - four clear of Manchester United in fifth place with a game still in hand over their Champions League rivals heading into the international break.
Aston Villa: Martinez (6), Cash (6), Konsa (6), Mings (5), Young (6), Luiz (6), McGinn (6), Ramsey (5), Coutinho (5), Buendia (7), Watkins (6).
Subs: Traore (5), Ings (n/a), Bailey (6).
Arsenal: Leno (7), Tierney (7), White (8), Gabriel (8), Cedric (7), Partey (8), Xhaka (6), Smith Rowe (6), Saka (9), Odegaard (6), Lacazette (6).
Subs: Holding (n/a), Pepe (6), Nketiah (6).
Man of the match: Bukayo Saka.
Arsenal boss Arteta said: "It's a very big win for us. I thought we played fantastically well, but we didn't put the game to bed when we had the chances. Then you suffer, but we showed the resilience to win.
"Villa are a very good team and to come here is always extremely difficult. We managed to do the things we wanted to do in the match and I think we deserved to win the game.
"The connection between the players and the fans is exceptional and that gives you a lot of energy and belief. There's still 10 games to go and you can see how small the margins are. The key is that we are there [in the top four] and that we believe we can do it."
Arteta had complained about the scheduling, with Arsenal having to play at lunchtime having hosted Liverpool on Wednesday evening, and he added: "After the defeat against Liverpool we wanted to come here and play well first, which we did, and get the three points because we want to keep the momentum going.
"I think the team showed today a lot of personality to come and play the way we played. We dominated the game."
Aston Villa defender Ashley Young felt Arsenal's celebrations after their 1-0 victory were a little over the top.
"You saw the way they celebrated, to be honest it was like they won the league," he told VillaTV.
"We want to be in those European places, we want to get the club back there, and everyone's got that ambition to get the club back there.
"So we want to make it a tough place to come, but we want to be winning games as well.'
It is nearly seven years since Arsenal last won five on the bounce on the road - in May 2015 when they would go on to finish third - and Arteta called on his team to maintain a high level of performance after their four-game winning streak was ended against Liverpool.
The Gunners were without Aaron Ramsdale with Arteta confirming the goalkeeper's hip injury will rule him out for "a few weeks" meaning he is set to miss out on England's forthcoming friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast.
Danny Ings dropped to the Aston Villa bench as the hosts made three changes. Emi Buendia replaced Ings, with Ollie Watkins playing as a lone striker. Ezri Konsa came in for Calum Chambers while Ashley Young replaced the injured Lucas Digne at left-back.
Arsenal were without goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and forward Gabriel Martinelli for the trip to the Midlands. It meant a rare start for Bernd Leno while Emile Smith Rowe played further forward. Takehiro Tomiyasu was not named in the squad.
Martin Odegaard, making his 50th appearance for the club, was swiftly involved as his clever pass was swept goalwards by Tomas Partey but easily gathered by Emi Martinez.
Arsenal's 2-0 loss to Liverpool meant a sixth defeat from six games against other members of the current top five, but here they faced a team who have also struggled to impose themselves when aspiring to greater heights.
Villa have now lost 10 of 12 games against teams above them in the division this term, so it is a measure of how far they still need to progress under Steven Gerrard.
Ezri Konsa, on his return to the side, was fortunate not to score an own goal when Martinez was alert to keep out his miscue from Saka's cross - but they were not so fortunate on the half-hour mark as Saka continued his excellent away form by nudging Arsenal in front.
The England international has now been involved in six goals in his last five Premier League away games - and his ninth league strike of the season was instinctive as he ran onto a loose clearance from Emi Buendia to shin a low shot through bodies to surprise the unsighted Martinez down to his right.
It was Arsenal's 2,000th Premier League goal, and Saka was targeted throughout the rest of the first half as Tyrone Mings was fortunate to escape with more than a yellow card for catching the in-form winger with his follow-through moments later.
This was a system failure for Gerrard as Arsenal were getting far too much space. Ashley Young needed help while Philippe Coutinho and Buendia had been anonymous, contributing to Villa only having two touches in their opponents' box.
Gerrard resisted the temptation to make an immediate change at the restart, but it wasn't until the hour-mark that his players threatened an equaliser as John McGinn latched onto a mistake from Odegaard to bend a shot a yard wide of Bernd Leno's left-hand post.
Arsenal were always more fluid in generating chances. Saka's control of the ball was mesmeric, losing Young from Partey's pass before caressing another shot just wide. It left the door ajar for Villa to always believe one chance could be converted - and Leno midway through the second period was beaten when Watkins' sharp turn and strike deflected off Kieran Tierney but brushed the outside of the post.
Arsenal hadn't been able to put Villa away, as Gerrard turned to reinforcements with Bertrand Traore and Leon Bailey introduced, but it failed to lift the tempo.
There was no rousing finish despite Danny Ings' late cameo and a looping header from McGinn's cross that rippled the roof of the net as Arsenal stood firm to return to winning ways. In truth, this was a relatively easy day in the second city for Arteta's men - but their defensive organisation given Ramsdale's absence was commendable. Bigger tests lie ahead.
Aston Villa boss Steven Gerrard said: "We were really indecisive first half, and lacked belief collectively. We were dominated and second best, but still in a position at half-time to do something about it.
"We improved second half and believed more. As the game went on, we got into better positions. We improved, but no complaints about the scoreline. I don't think teams like Arsenal are a step too far, but there is a gap we need to close. We are working on that. We've got to make it a lot more difficult in the first half, because the reaction we got was much more like us.
"Do I think we deserved to win? No, but I believe we should have got a draw out of the game."
Sky Sports' Ben Grounds:
It was a sign of where the game was that Rob Holding replaced Martin Odegaard with five minutes to play. It is all about results for Arsenal at this stage of the campaign and there is no need to entertain. The prize is huge if they can finish in the top four after five years away from the Champions League and they strengthened that position at Villa.
Arteta needed holding back by fourth official Martin Atkinson as he continued to point at his players to track back during an attritional second half. After Leno clawed away one last fizzing free-kick from Coutinho, the final whistle was greeted elastically by Arteta as he embraced his assistant Steve Round on the touchline.
The Spaniard is striving to take Arsenal back to where they feel they belong - and here you could sense the importance of this victory in one of the more awkward hurdles that remained this term.
This was an off-day for Villa, as Gerrard slumped back into his seat during the closing stages. Arteta never stopped gesticulating. He has got his players set up in his image now - "he knows exactly what we need" goes the song from the jubilant Arsenal fans - and while trips to Tottenham and Chelsea still lie ahead, there is nothing flaky about Arsenal anymore.
Only Arsenal have regularly fielded a starting XI whose average age is under 25 - but they are growing in experience with each passing week. This was another big step for Arteta and his side.
Only four Premier League games this weekend, but when there's such quality on show, who needs quantity?
Saka was full of the joys of spring to accompany the sunshine at Villa Park and Young never got to grips with him. Saka had in fact suffered two below-par displays against Leicester and Liverpool, but here he moved into double figures for the season.
It led to a period of sustained special treatment but he emerged patched up for the second half having only missed two games this season. Robust and already rounding his game, it is hard to accept he's only 20 when you see him playing like this, such a mature footballer who is spearheading Arsenal's ascent.
Arteta opted to remove him on 69 minutes - he wasn't getting the protection from the match officials - as Nicolas Pepe continued the fight, but Saka had already dealt the decisive blow.
"He was really fatigued and after Liverpool he had an issue with his hip," added Arteta. "He's played a lot of minutes and you could tell. We don't want to risk (anything). He needs to go with England now and we decided the best thing to do was to take him off."
Saka told BT Sport: "To win today was big. To get the result and three points makes us really happy. The goal set us up; we created a few chances before and after, but that goal put us in the driving seat.
"I wasn't complaining [to the referee], but I wanted to let him know that is my game. I'm going to run at players; sometimes I need a bit more protection when the opposition is trying to kick me."
On being more resilient, Saka added: "We are better at it. We have been working on it and improving, you can see that. The Champions League is the goal, but we've got to stay humble."
Following the international break, Aston Villa return to Premier League action against Wolves at Molineux on Saturday, April 2; kick-off 3pm.
Arsenal visit Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Monday Night Football on April 4, live on Sky Sports; kick-off 8pm.