If Arsenal can maintain this level, they will change a few minds in short order. Aston Villa were shoddy here but largely because Mikel Arteta’s players made them so, outdoing them in every conceivable department and meriting a greater margin of victory.
Where Arsenal laboured on Monday night, this time they luxuriated; Thomas Partey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith Rowe were the beneficiaries but every member of their team had the physical and technical beating of his opposite number.
It meant Villa’s recent hold over this fixture was brutally broken and, on this evidence, anyone predicting that they present a threat to Arsenal in the Premier League’s long-term pecking order may think again. They have lost three in a row while Arteta can enjoy a return of 14 points from the past six games. A late goal from the substitute Jacob Ramsey, superbly taken though it was, flattered the visitors.
Given the developing rivalry between these clubs it was no surprise proceedings began with an edge. Villa were confident enough of their station to make two offers for Smith Rowe during the summer; in goal they could call on a keeper, in Emi Martínez, whom Arsenal would rather not have lost and there was always the added context that the previous three meetings had gone their way.
Within 30 seconds of kick-off Ollie Watkins, in wrestling Gabriel Magalhães to one side after Aaron Ramsdale had collected the ball near his 18-yard line, had provoked a short-lived skirmish that occupied half the outfield players. He was booked and the atmosphere, already spiky, ramped up a notch.
Arsenal have made a habit of fast starts here: this proved no exception and their lead was well signposted. Alexandre Lacazette had saved them from defeat against Crystal Palace on Monday and was rewarded with his first top-flight start of the season, floating around the No 10 position in support of Aubameyang. In the fourth minute Aubameyang miscued an overhead kick from an awkward angle and the ball ran to Bukayo Saka, whose cross had offered him the chance. Saka ballooned high and wide, but the tone was set.
Nuno Tavares, beginning a Premier League game for the first time due to Kieran Tierney’s bruised ankle, then galloped into the box but let his rawness show by blazing over. Arsenal kept coming and Martínez, falling to the floor under scant pressure as a high ball dropped near him, was fortunate to see Smith Rowe’s piledriver blocked.
Villa could not handle Arsenal’s tempo and set pieces were providing a similar ordeal. Partey’s wayward long-range shooting sometimes prompts ridicule but, two minutes before his goal, he came agonisingly close from six yards when jabbing against the post after Saka’s free-kick had been only half-cleared. When he did score, the contact was messier. Tavares had seen another shot deflected wide and, from Smith Rowe’s inswinging corner, Partey rose at the near post. He connected with shoulder rather than head, but Martínez was slow to react and the ball squirmed into his far corner.
The lead was thoroughly deserved: if Arsenal had not quite matched the tornado that destroyed Tottenham, this was not far off. On the half-hour they should have scored again when Tavares found Saka unmarked with a marvellously-angled pass from the left. Saka allowed Martínez to save with his feet and Villa, second best to absolutely everything, were temporarily spared further damage.
They kept courting it, though, and were punished again in added time. The ball went out for a throw-in, with Craig Pawson ready to blow his whistle, but VAR had been studying a challenge by Matt Targett on Lacazette that had the crowd screaming for a penalty while play was waved on. Upon review at his touchline monitor, Pawson correctly ruled Targett had gone through his opponent to take the ball. The half had life in it yet: while Martínez parried Aubameyang’s spot kick, he was helpless in the face of an emphatically converted rebound.
Arsenal’s task was to sustain this level of performance; Villa’s was to improve dramatically on their poorest offering of the season. Dean Smith introduced Leon Bailey and the impact was immediate, if short-lived.
Watkins tested Ramsdale at his near post and then, six minutes after the restart, Ben White made a crucial block from Danny Ings, but the hosts were always far crisper.
The point was proved when Smith Rowe intercepted an undercooked pass from John McGinn deep inside his own half and then set off towards Villa territory. Within seconds Tavares had played the ball into Aubameyang, whose first-time flick met Smith Rowe’s lung-busting run down the inside left channel. While his finish owed something to fortune, the eventual shot hitting Tyrone Mings and going in off a post, the move was testament to the scorer’s intoxicating mix of industry and sheer quality.
The game was up for Villa and, when they finally created a clear opportunity, Ramsdale saved from Ings to ensure they remained bereft of oxygen. Aubameyang demanded a flying save of Martínez and Arsenal looked more likely to find a fourth before, from nowhere, Ramsey curled in precisely. It did little to alter either side’s night.