Fears over the mentality of Dean Smith’s players after last weekend’s unfathomable capitulation against Wolves were only intensified by last night’s dire 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.
Villa picked up at the Emirates right where they left off six days previously. For the opening 45 minutes their performance bordered on the shambolic and not even a near farcical intervention from VAR, through which the Gunners scored their second through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, could disguise their problems.
Among those, again, were defending set pieces. Having conceded from two corners late against Wolves, Villa went behind when Thomas Partey headed home from Arsenal’s second of the night.
After Aubameyang converted the rebound when Emi Martinez saved his penalty, awarded by referee Craig Pawson after a VAR check adjudged Matt Targett to have fouled Alexandre Lacazette, Emile Smith Rowe - a player Villa tried hard to sign last summer - made it 3-0 with an effort deflected off Tyrone Mings.
By then Smith had ditched the three-man defensive system used in recent games and though Villa looked a more fluid attacking force in the second half, pulling a goal back when Jacob Ramsey brilliantly struck, their biggest issues were in midfield and their inability to retain possession. That problem may not be so easily solved and it is also hard to escape the sense Villa are a team lacking balance and identity.
The onus is on Smith to find solutions quickly. This defeat was their third in a row and fifth in nine Premier League matches so far. While the head coach is not under any pressure yet, more performances like this will soon have him under increased scrutiny.
The tone was set inside the opening 30 seconds when Watkins, taking umbrage at being blocked by Gabriel, through the Arsenal defender to prompt a melee and eventually a booking Pawson.
Though the card might have been harsh, Watkins was foolish and the act summed up scrappy Villa, who soon found themselves pushed back.
Arsenal particularly enjoyed success down the flanks, Partey picking out Bukayo Saka with a clever pass, the England winger flinging a cross to the far post where Aubameyang attempted, unsuccessfully, to acrobatically finish.
Nuno Tavares then raced past Matty Cash and Axel Tuanzebe before blazing high over the bar from the left of the box.
Then came the set pieces. Villa were fortunate to escape from Arsenal’s first corner when Danny Ings sliced his near post clearance, Martinez appeared to be bundled over and Smith Rowe’s shot was blocked. From a Saka free-kick, Partey then volleyed against the bar after Villa failed to clear.
The breakthrough finally arrived in the 23rd minute. John McGinn switched off allowing Partey to reach Smith Rowe’s corner at the near post and his flicked header was powerful enough despite Martinez getting a hand to it.
So high are the Argentina international’s standards he will have been disappointed not to keep it out. But soon after he kept Villa in the game, saving at point blank range from Saka after the visitors had again been carved open on the counter.
Mings and then McGinn went into the book as Villa were left chasing shadows. Still, they looked set to reach half-time with just the one-goal deficit until the VAR controversy.
Indeed, it looked as though Villa had survived when Pawson appeared to blow his whistle for the break, only to immediately signal for a VAR check on Targett’s challenge, which had taken place nearly a minute before.
Replays were inconclusive, with the Villa man appearing to make minor contact with Lacazette and more with the ball. There was certainly not enough to suggest Pawson had been wrong in his original decision. Yet the official himself thought otherwise, pointing to the spot. Martinez saved Aubameyang’s kick but the rebound fell kindly for the Arsenal man to finish.
Smith introduced Bailey for Tuanzebe at the break and finally Villa had an effort on goal, Ramsdale saving at his near post from Watkins after the latter had been set away by Buendia.
But with Villa committing more men forward they were always going to be vulnerable to the counter and when McGinn, not for the first time, gave the ball away cheaply Smith Rowe took full advantage, his shot deflecting off Mings before going in off the near post.
That was effectively game over though Emi Buendia was denied his first Villa goal when Ramsdale superbly saved with his legs.
After Martinez denied Aubameyang, substitute Ramsey bagged a brilliant first senior goal when he fired into the top corner. Alas, it was only a consolation on an otherwise dreadful night.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Ramsdale, White, Gabriel, Tomiyasu, Tavares, Partey, Sambi Lokonga (Maitland-Niles 73), Saka, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang (Martinelli 90+1), Lacazette (Odegaard 68) Subs not used: Holding, Soares, Pepe, Elneny, Kolasinac, Leno (gk).
Villa (3-5-2): Martinez, Konsa, Tuanzebe (Bailey HT), Mings, Cash, Luiz, McGinn, Targett, Buendia (Ramsey 68), Ings (El Ghazi 77), Watkins Subs not used: Hause, Young, Nakamba, Sanson, Archer, Steer (gk).