Bernd Leno was suspended after one of the season’s sillier sendings-off. Alex Runarsson, signed as his deputy, was still a substitute, something he cannot even be in continental competition after being omitted from the Europa League squad. The lifelong Arsenal fan Mat Ryan marked his Gunners debut by conceding in 75 seconds. The man who would have stood in for Leno made a couple of outstanding saves to condemn Arsenal to a second defeat in the Midlands in a week.
If Arsenal’s current goalkeepers each had reasons to recent events, their former one had something to savour. Emi Martinez, whose heroics helped Arsenal win two trophies and rendered him one of the stars of their summer, made brilliant stops to deny Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pepe an equaliser, kept his 11th clean sheet of a superb season and helped his side record a first league double over the Gunners since 1993. Aston Villa are still in with a shot of securing Champions League football; after successive setbacks, Arsenal surely are not.
Theirs has been a week of missed opportunities, of finding ways to lose. Beaten with nine men at Wolves on Tuesday, they were defeated by Villa’s quickest top-flight goal since 2014. This felt further proof that their wounds can be self-inflicted. This was nothing like as poor a performance as in November, when they were outwitted and outmanoeuvred by Villa, but they lost again. That finished 3-0 and there could have been a repeat scoreline: after the early shock of Ollie Watkins’ goal, Ryan excelled to justify his selection ahead of Runarsson.
Cedric Soares was more culpable for defeat, which in turn illustrated that Arsenal again missed the injured Kieran Tierney. When Soares was substituted, their brightest attacker, Bukayo Saka, had to be repackaged as a left-back. There are faultlines in this squad and Cedric, a right-back who has prospered out of position of late, erred initially.
He gave the ball away to the bright Bertrand Traore. Watkins met the winger’s cross with a shot that deflected in off Rob Holding for his fourth goal in five games. This, it is safe to assume, was not what Ryan dreamed off as a boyhood supporter or when he was borrowed from Brighton.
He had to wait half an hour for his first save, standing tall when Traore tried to dink the ball over him. The Australian lost his place at Brighton after making too few saves, but produced two fine parries to deny Watkins a second, repelled John McGinn’s drive and thwarted Jack Grealish.
It offered encouragement he may prove a decent deputy for Leno. Martinez emerged from the shadows to be an excellent understudy before Arsenal cashed in on him to fund Mikel Arteta’s rebuilding. He has flourished as a first choice for Villa, transforming their defensive record and proving one of the signings of the season. He frustrated former team-mates. Martinez flung himself to his left to tip a free kick from Xhaka over the bar. He reacted superbly when Pepe’s effort was deflected, conjuring a stop with his legs. Subdued in the first half, Pepe was more prominent after the break and shot just wide after a winding run.
Before then, Arsenal hoped their week of red cards might produce one for Ezri Konsa for fouling Saka; the officials settled on a yellow. Halting Saka had its difficulties, though, with two Villans booked for challenges on him.
By the end, he was nominally a defender in an ultra-attacking line-up. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was summoned for the final half-hour; he was later joined by Martin Odegaard and Willian. Arteta had his head in his hands when the Norwegian blazed over. But Martinez kept a clean sheet and only one of the four goalkeepers to represent Arsenal this season could relish the result.
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