Arsenal stumble as soon as pressure hits in Premier League title race

Arsenal 0-2 Aston Villa: Liverpool’s shock defeat at Anfield left Mikel Arteta’s side seven wins from glory – but Unai Emery had other ideas and it is Manchester City who are once again in control

Miguel Delaney
at the Emirates
Sunday 14 April 2024 19:22 BST
Arteta urges Arsenal to ‘stand up and be counted’ after Aston Villa blow

So much for an unprecedented three-way title race. It was instead all so familiar at Arsenal as Mikel Arteta’s side followed Liverpool in losing at home to perhaps end this run-in just as it was properly beginning.

This may be the weekend that everyone looks back on as when Manchester City won the 2023-24 title. There was daylight between the champions and the challengers for the first time, although not as wide as that in the Arsenal defence as they chased the game against a brilliantly astute Aston Villa.

Unai Emery once more did a number on his old club, as this 2-0 win also served to put his side in command of a Champions League place. It was a brilliantly tactical performance, to go with a superb first full season no matter what happens.

As for Arsenal, in what is their second title challenge under Arteta, the great frustration was how similar the end of this game looked to the defeat to Brighton last season. The home side were attempting to build attacks in a ponderous and indecisive manner, only for Emery’s team to just cut through them.

Watkins chips Raya to double Villa’s lead
Watkins chips Raya to double Villa’s lead (Reuters)

The strikes that won the game were clinical in sublimely different ways. For the first, as Arsenal just couldn’t seem to get anything right, a Lucas Digne ball flashed across the box for Leon Bailey to then get the acute finish absolutely spot on from such a narrow angle.

For the clincher, that may end up being the title itself, Ollie Watkins strode forward to then impudently lift the ball over David Raya.

That ensured there was no chance of any kind of grandstand finish, but then it hadn’t actually looked all that likely even before the first goal. Arsenal were doing so little.

The same might now be true of the title race as a whole.

Arsenal let the lead in the title race slip from their grasp
Arsenal let the lead in the title race slip from their grasp (Getty Images)

While Arteta’s side are still only a point behind City, the psychological shift all this represents is immense.

It is no longer just a case of Arsenal having to win every game, as was true before this match. That comes with the added complication of hoping for the unlikely event that City drop points somewhere. The run-in for the champions is also so much more forgiving, which makes this even worse.

Looking at this on paper, this fixture always looked difficult for Arsenal, but there were maybe three others that would have stood out first as potential dropped points.

Instead, just as the pressure properly starts, they have faltered.

The game even ended with the giddy Villa fans ‘oleing’ passes.

Watkins celebrates as Villa took a big step in their Champions League push
Watkins celebrates as Villa took a big step in their Champions League push (Getty Images)

It was so different from how the game began, too.

Arsenal had started so well that it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for Aston Villa. Havertz quickly broke through to have a shot denied, Gabriel Jesus headed just wide, Bukayo Saka seemed to be free on the right every single time.

As tends to happen with such title run-ins, the results of rivals weigh over everything. It was hard not to think Liverpool’s shock defeat and City’s ominous form influenced events, especially as the game went on without a goal.

That weight felt heavier as Saka shot into the side-netting and then, remarkably, Emiliano Martinez saved from point-blank range from Leandro Trossard.

The Belgian had most of the goal to shoot at, although it was instinctive and Martinez spread himself brilliantly.

That moment also came after Arsenal were themselves stretched for the first time. Watkins was released and smashed the ball off the inside of the post.

Martinez made a key stop to deny Trossard in the first half
Martinez made a key stop to deny Trossard in the first half (Getty Images)

It might be coincidence but Arsenal were never quite the same after that. It was almost as if Villa reminded them there was something to lose here, rather than just a title to win. So it was that Youri Tielemens had the next best big moment of the game, hitting the frame of the goal for the second – and, in the same shot, third – time of the match. Arsenal went a bit flat.

Arteta, having finally started Trossard after so many decisive moments as a substitute, had to reverse that by hauling him off for Gabriel Martinelli.

Havertz has been so good for Arsenal lately but there were elements of this match where he almost personified a drift about the display. There were a number of occasions where he got the ball in the Villa half and had the opportunity to drive forward. The German lacked the urgency that was required.

Arteta eventually introduced Emile Smith Rowe, trying to further affect the game.

Arsenal just couldn’t get into it. Emery had a tactical hold on the game. Bailey scored, then Watkins followed.

It all may strengthen City’s hold on the trophy.

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