BIRMINGHAM -- Aston Villa might have been in the lead as the clock ticked round to 65 minutes on a night where B6 crackled jubilance, but it was hard to see them holding Arsenal at bay for what was left of the game if something did not change. Something did change. Enough, it transpired, to lead Unai Emery's side to a club-record 15th straight league win at home. In the process, this team might have proven that they are a very real prospect for the months ahead.
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Probably not a title contender, perhaps not even a side that will still be ranking alongside the Premier League's presumptive three into the spring. Yet what this team could achieve in the months ahead would have been unimaginable to Villa supporters when Emery was appointed less than 14 months ago. Now he finds himself a point behind his former employers after as thrilling a week as this club has seen in a generation, England's top two last season felled in the most boisterous of fashions.
This was not, however, the sledgehammering of Manchester City from Villa. The game was there for Arsenal to win, for a sizeable proportion of it, from soon after John McGinn's opener until just after the hour when Gabriel Martinelli could swan behind a high line with ease. He and his teammates seemed as surprised as anyone at the huge tracts of land available for them to play in. Twice Martin Odegaard spurned the most inviting of chances -- is there something about the Villa Park pitch that brings out his bad finishes -- while Kai Havertz impressed again with his stretching runs into the half space. Twice Diego Carlos was called upon to quell danger on the line. The goal, probably the goals, were coming.
That was until Emery turned to a substitutes bench remarkably stacked with talent. Moussa Diaby and Jacob Ramsey had already entered the fray in place of Leon Bailey and Youri Tielemans but it was the introduction of Matty Cash for Ezri Konsa at right back coupled with Leander Dendoncker replacing Boubacar Kamara that allowed Villa to quell the storm. The former gave Villa the legs to track Havertz while the latter offered the pace needed to close the gaps on the right flank.
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"We needed the players on the bench," said Emery. "The starting XI is very important but the players on the bench have to be ready to help when we need them. Today they did."
Cash's task was certainly aided by Arteta's changes, almost as impactful on the game and almost as important in Villa getting all three points. Martinelli had been largely wasteful in his runs along the left but he was getting in behind. His replacement, Leandro Trossard, offers a great deal to Arsenal on the right occasions but he was not going to stretch play in behind like the Brazilian did. With his introduction the threat subsided, Villa were holding on.
"We started to attack in a way that wasn't too smart from our side," said Arteta. "We started to rush decisions, to play balls in behind from areas where you're not going to hurt them and you'll get exposed afterwards."
Of course, it would not be an Arsenal game without refereeing drama. Gabriel Jesus had already been felled by Douglas Luiz in the penalty area, the Villa man seemingly connecting with his compatriot's leg rather than the ball. VAR Jarred Gillett was unmoved, as he was for the pinballing around the Villa goal line in the 92nd minute that ended with Eddie Nketiah poking the ball into the net. Replays seemed to show the ball had hit the arms of Havertz and Cash as well as a fair few body parts in between. These goals seem to be magnetically attracted to Arsenal, Anthony Gordon's goal of many maybe moments for Newcastle last month -- now this one that wasn't.
This time there was no rage from Arteta. The charge for his indignation post-Newcastle still hangs over him. No wonder he responded to a question over the incidents with three words.
"Clear and obvious," he said.
That the officials had been wrong? That Arsenal had been unfairly penalized?
"No, no, clear and obvious. That's what I mean," he added.
You, I and the FA can merely speculate on what he means.
Arteta could ultimately reflect that his side had tested Villa like no other since the last team to win a league game at Villa Park, his in February. There will be few games in the months ahead where Odegaard, Jesus, Martinelli and Bukayo Saka simultaneously go haywire in the final third.
As for Villa, Emery won't say his side can win the league, he still talks of pushing for a top-seven berth. He has, at least, set a timescale where such conversations are valid.
Day 30, 32, maybe I can think and send another message," he said.
Given their expected goal difference and their form on the road, one would suspect that by then this side will not be between Arsenal and Manchester City.
There is, however, plenty to make you believe that they are as serious a contender for Champions League qualification as anyone. There is quality depth right across Emery's squad and while they might be short one or two attackers of the level of Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah, the goals are flowing. Emiliano Martinez might just be on a comparable level for goalkeepers, a master of shot-stopping and s*ithousing.
Then there is Emery himself, the propulsive force that has proven able to do the one thing Arsenal never knew they wanted him to do: be the propulsive force behind a club on and off the pitch. A few more interventions like he made Saturday and he might still be answering the big questions on day 32.