There was a lot made of the home side’s absentees before the game. Supporters were concerned at a sudden lack of midfield options with all of Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny and Oleksandr Zinchenko sidelined. Despite those fears, Xhaka and Lokonga put in a solid display in the middle, allowing Arsenal to assert their dominance on the game.
Xhaka in particular was instrumental to the victory. At 29, the Swiss international is by far one of the older members of this current Gunners crop. Tonight, he looked every inch the experienced pro he is; contributing with incisive passes going forward and poise in deeper areas in equal measure.
Without Zinchenko at left back, who ordinarily tucks into the midfield in-posession and allows Xhaka to push forward, the former Arsenal captain played a slightly different role tonight — more akin to earlier in his time at the Emirates.
Mikel Arteta’s side were totally dominant in the first half. Early into the game they found themselves in behind numerous times; Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka both causing the visitors’ defence issues.
Perhaps the clearest opportunity of the half came just after the 22 minute mark, when Xhaka showed good power to burst through the midfield and find Martinelli on the left, who proceeded to cross into the box. Saka arrived unmarked at the back post but could only divert his first-time effort over the bar. He should have scored, but the tone was set.
Just 7 minutes later Arsenal made their breakthrough. It was Xhaka again who was instrumental in the buildup, crossing from the left of the box and forcing Martinez to parry. Gabriel Jesus, as has become a familiar sight so far this season, was fastest to react, leaving Tyrone Mings flat footed in the box and rifling home to score.
Arsenal finished the half clearly in the ascendency: 67% ball possession, 15 total shots, 7 on target, 7 corners and a one goal lead.
The second half was not quite as straight-forward. Villa were able to get on the ball more and provided more of a threat. Their 70th minute corner was taken by Douglas Luiz, which proved his first touch of the ball after coming on as a substitute for John McGinn. Said corner sailed straight in past Aaron Ramsdale to give the away team their equaliser. Pressure was suddenly mounting for Arteta’s men.
After responding instantly to conceding goals against Leicester in their opening home game, that is exactly what Arsenal did again. Bukayo Saka’s cross found Gabriel Martinelli, who guided the ball past Martinez to restore his side’s lead.
For all of their dominance, the Gunners endured a more nervy end to the game than the first half suggested they would need to. Showing trademark leadership, Xhaka encouraged ball boys to be a little less hasty in retrieving the ball for Aston Villa when it went out for throw-ins.
Although they didn’t blow Steven Gerrard’s team away, Arsenal will be thrilled to continue their electric start to the season, in which they have collected maximum points from their opening 5 games.
In between tonight’s win and Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford, attention will now return to the transfer market. Mikel Arteta has in recent weeks been open about hoping to bring in additional signings before it shuts on Thursday evening and if he can, it will surely bolster their already promising chances of returning to the Champions League.