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Strong backbone sets Arsenal up for success as smart links outperform Aston Villa

Bukayo Saka scored the game’s only goal as Arsenal secured a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in which their players were largely comfortable.

Arsenal had the better share of the ball early on and took the lead after half an hour. The ball fell on Bukayo Saka at the edge of the box and he finished the first time. That gave Arsenal the lead at the break, with boos around Villa Park as the whistle sounded.

The hosts were more competitive in the second half but still couldn’t test Arsenal too much.

This means Arsenal remain favorites to finish fourth. They have a four-point cushion over fifth-placed Manchester United and have still played one less game.

They managed to do the job against Villa with minimal hassle thanks to a strong spine and clever use of wide areas.

Are certain teams favored with regard to the starting order of the match of the day?


Emiliano Martinez: Made a brilliant reaction save after a Konsa deflection in the 10th minute. I didn’t see Saka’s strike for the first game until late. 6/10

Matt Cash: Tried to move forward to use his crossover ability but still didn’t have space. 6

Ezri Konsa: Fairly quiet at the back as Villa tried to settle in. 6

Tyrone Mings: Booked for a late challenge on Saka shortly after the first goal which sparked a rapprochement between the two groups of players. 5

Ashley Young: Replacing left-back Lucas Digne due to the Frenchman’s injury, has been targeted by Arsenal at the beginning. Didn’t get much help defensively but started making some blocks and producing more in the opposite direction. 6

John McGinn: Took responsibility from set pieces early on, showing good technique. At times became a bit stretched in midfield, but was generally one of Villa’s most positive players. 7

Douglas Luiz: Sent a free kick wildly midway through the second half. Fairly quiet otherwise. 6

Jacob Ramsey: Won the first yellow card of the match for a diving challenge on Smith Rowe. Showed the occasional glimpse of influencing things but was taken down before the final 20 minutes. 6

Philippe Coutinho: Tried to pick out a few passes but couldn’t quite connect with teammates. 5

Emi Buendia: Frustrated in the first half after a quiet performance and did little to turn things around afterwards. 5

Ollie Watkins: Chosen in the lead instead of last week’s starter, Danny Ings, tended to be pushed out. Went the closest Villa had been with a deflected shot in the final 25 minutes. 6


Bertrand Traoré (for Ramsey, 69 mins): 5

Leon Bailey (for Buendia, 69): 5

Danny Ings (for Watkins, 82): N/A

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Bernd Leno: The injured replacement for Aaron Ramsdale, on his first league appearance since August, didn’t have a single shot on target to contend with until the final kick. 6

Cedric Soares: Defended well holding off Villa’s forward runners. 7

Ben White: Prevented Villa’s first real chance in the 20th minute by reading the ball’s path well to make a clearance. Produces other equally strong pieces of defense. 8

Gabriel Magalhaes: Always alert, avoiding danger with a few timely interventions. 8

Kieran Tierney: Put on a neat performance, playing his part by making blocks, especially when the ball entered the box from different angles. 8

Thomas Partey: Committed a few fouls in the opposite phase, but had a positive influence on Arsenal’s construction game. Things continued to flow. Man of the match. 8

Granite Xhaka: Turned things around with his passes and dug in to help defensively. He almost let his temper flare up at one point, but he was otherwise more mature. 7

Martin Odegaard: Linked well with players either side of a central position in a smart performance. 7

Bukayo Saka: Gave Arsenal the lead with a finish from outside the box, having been heavily involved thus far. Drawn a few fouls from the opposition and caused cutting problems inside. A tall order seemed to affect his freedom afterwards as his decision-making also plummeted, but he continued until replaced. 8

Alexandre Lacazette: I worked hard but most of Arsenal’s attacks went wide. 6

Emile Smith Rowe: Introduced in the starting lineup for the ailing Gabriel Martinelli, didn’t get enough power on the game’s first shot. I saw part of the ball as the game progressed. 6


Nicolas Pepe (for Saka, 69): 6

Eddie Nketiah (for Lacazette, 78): N/A

Rob Holding (for Odegaard, 86): N/A

READ MORE: Jamie Carragher explains why ‘the right team’ will win the race for fourth place