Mikel Arteta’s sense of injustice was palpable at full-time, but the greater concern for the Arsenal manager will be how his team are slipping back into bad habits. The Spaniard was uncharacteristically confrontational with referee Chris Kavanagh and his two assistants as the players left the field following Aston Villa’s impressive 1-0 win at Villa Park, caught on camera telling them “I am talking to you with respect” as his complaints were given short shrift.
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Arteta was furious over the decision to punish Ezri Konsa’s cynical 31st-minute foul on Bukayo Saka with a yellow card when the Arsenal winger appeared to be through on goal. Saka had a long distance to travel with Villa defender Matty Cash scrambling to cover — two factors that no doubt saved Konsa from being dismissed for denying an obvious goal-scoring chance.
The Gunners arguably had a stronger case in the second half when Emiliano Martinez appeared to pull Alexandre Lacazette to the ground from a corner, and both incidents amount to a week of officiating grievances after the Gunners had two players sent off at Wolves on Wednesday. Arsenal’s appeal against David Luiz’s red card at Molineux fell on deaf ears and while it might be tempting to concentrate on marginal decisions going against them again here, they should be concentrating on things that are under their control — primarily, the worrying trends creeping back into their football.
“As you could see, I was really animated for a few decisions and one big decision I will not discuss here as well,” he said. “It is what it is. It is not an excuse, Regardless of those decisions, we have to win the game. It is as simple as that.”
Asked what he said to the officials, Arteta replied: “I prefer to stay on mute on that.” Sat in his postmatch news conference via Zoom, it was a very 2020 answer in these COVID-19 times, aptly so because this was a very “2020 Arsenal” kind of performance.
The darkest period of Arteta’s tenure (November and December 2020) saw individual defensive errors compounded by a lack of creativity in the final third. Arteta made progress in addressing these issues, chiefly through an improved defensive record, with five clean sheets in six League games, until losing at Wolves in midweek and unleashing the potential of young duo Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka to reinvigorate the attack.
This was a step back in both aspects. Arsenal fell behind inside two minutes after a sloppy start. Gabriel intercepted John McGinn’s cross and the loose ball fell to Cedric Soares, who tried to return the ball to his centre-half only for Bertrand Traore to nip in and cut the ball back to Ollie Watkins, whose shot deflected off Rob Holding and found the far corner. It meant Gunners goalkeeper Mat Ryan conceded on his Premier League debut before he touched the ball.
Ryan, a January loan signing from Brighton, was excellent thereafter in repelling Villa as the home side created the better chances, even during a second half in which Arsenal improved and exerted sustained pressure without making the most of several threatening moments. The ended the game with 66% possession, but just three Arsenal shots on target. Pepe probed with purpose, Saka and Smith Rowe combined to fine effect on several occasions and substitute Martin Odegaard wasted arguably their best chance, firing over from 16 yards.
Watkins, the first English player to score at least 10 Premier League goals for Villa since Gabriel Agbonlahor in 2009-10, and Grealish would have extended Villa’s lead had it not been for Ryan, leaving a somewhat myopic Arteta to rue errors at both ends of the pitch.
“We completely dominated the game, we dominated every department and we should have won the game,” he said. “But in the Premier League when you give a goal just to the opponent and we gave them another three opportunities, and then you are not ruthless enough in the opponent’s box, you don’t win games.
“The rest, the way the team played, the energy and quality they showed, the amount of chances and situations we created, how quickly we regained the ball, how we controlled long ball, second balls, how aggressive we were in our duels — incredible. But it wasn’t enough to win the game.
“If we are not ruthless, we [must not] give anything to the opponents. That is something we must do better, and it cost us two games in the last four days because the reality is we should have own both games.”
Arsenal lost a little impetus with their substitutions. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang failed to get involved in the game as a 59th-minute replacement for Lacazette, while Willian may not have come on specifically for Thomas Partey had the midfielder not picked up a muscular injury. Either way, the Brazilian can add this to a lengthy catalogue of anonymous cameos.
Odegaard was the brightest introduction, but the end result shifts a little focus back onto Arteta given they have now lost 10 Premier League games this season, the same total as in the whole 2019-20 campaign.
“We have to come back, we have done it this season,” said Arteta, referring to their recovery at the turn of the year. “We have a week now to prepare the next game against Leeds and we have to focus on that, keep maintaining all the right things we are doing, the way the team is evolving, the way the team is playing but stop certain things that are costing us the game.”