At the weekend, Arsenal made their way into the final international break of the season by taking three points at Villa Park.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND: Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park on March 19, 2022. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND: Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park on March 19, 2022. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Le Grove described our performance as “performance of the season“. I’m not so sure about that, but given the situation, you can see where he was coming from.

A lunchtime kick off, just three days after our defeat at the hands of those pesky Scousers, at Villa Park was always going to be troublesome.

However, Arsenal picked up where they had left off against Leicester and passed Villa into submission in an exceptional first-half performance inspired by the magnificent Thomas Partey and an irrepressible, matchwinning Bukayo Saka.

If levels, understandably, dropped in the second half, we couldn’t be faulted for the commitment and concentration shown in defence.

I guess no moment epitomised this more than when Bernd Leno, hitherto pretty much unemployed despite making his first Premier League start since August, plunged to his left in the last action of the game to parry away Phillipe Coutinho’s free-kick from the left corner of the box.

In my mind, the celebrations which followed were as much about us coming through that moment as they were winning the game (although, obviously winning the game helped).

And what about those celebrations, eh? One of the themes I’ve really picked up on since returning to writing is the absolute nonsense this game can inspire people to. And haven’t we seen a lot of it since the full-time whistle blew on Saturday afternoon?

Some of us have been irritated by it, but for my money, it’s hilarious. I also think the fact that we’re winding teams up week by week is a sure sign we’re on the way back.

Let Gabby Agbonlahor (okay, having been destroyed by the brilliant Laura Woods, he’s subsequently apologised) make his bitter comments about it being “like they’d won the league”. Let Ruben Neves and Conor Coady chat their nonsense, I’ll take it all day long till the end of the season and I’ll tell you why.

It’s simply this: if it keeps going till the end of the season, it means Mikel Arteta has done his job. We’d all much rather be leaving a trail of bitter opponents in our wake than be dismissed with jibes like “nice kick about with the lads”, wouldn’t we?

As we’re talking about nonsense, let us bring Steven Gerrard, Action Man Stevie, into the light. Specifically, of course, his reaction to comments that Bukayo Saka didn’t actually make after leaving the field having been clattered by various Aston Villa players.

You’ll all have seen the comments, so I won’t reproduce in full here, however, this –

“I’m sitting here now with screws in my hips, I’ve had about 16 operations, I’m struggling to go to the gym at the moment. That’s all on the back of earning a living in English football. He’ll learn and he’ll learn quick.”

– is just incredible. Is this really the future we want for Saka, or indeed any footballer? Screws in your joints and an inability to make it down to the gym?

I’m a few years older than Gerrard, only a few, mind, and the idea that I might not be able to get down the gym because my body has been so battered I physically can’t is horrifying to me. But Gerrard seems to believe, if you choose a life in professional football this is just a fait accompli.

Is it only professional rivalries that stop someone like Gerrard from acknowledging that someone like Saka does need to be protected and not kicked up and down Premier League grounds nationwide?

Shouldn’t Gerrard know what those screws and operations personally cost him and not want that for a prodigiously talented youngster making is way in the game?

I mean, this kid is someone who could become a world beater for both Arsenal and England – surely it’s in the interest of our national game to ensure that Saka doesn’t end up with ankles and knees destroyed by the time he’s 25?

If the only way to stop this kid is to foul him, then why wouldn’t you, particularly if you know there’s a fair chance you’ll get away with it?

Like James McArthur did earlier this season, same as Danny Rose in an almost comical performance when Watford visited, that Everton no-mark and Matty Cash last weekend…

There is a point to be made that, perhaps as Arsenal fans, we are overly sensitive to these issues, but given the “Arsenal don’t like it up ’em” narrative that grew around the mid-point of Arsène Wenger’s tenure and led to, count them, three broken legs for three different Arsenal players in the space of four years, you could also say we’ve seen how this movie ends.

Spoiler alert: Not well.

As Mikel Arteta (thank you for making me want to write about Arsenal again, jefe) said the other day, players like our Bukayo “are the reason we’re here”.

Here we are again, with yet another foreign coach talking about the need to protect talent in response to a British coach, brought up on a diet of blood and thunder and Graeme Souness, putting first the right of the professional footballer to maim a colleague with impunity.

We all understand football is a contact sport, nobody is saying, or wanting, otherwise. But this macho, “I suffered, so everyone else should too” attitude is for the dinosaurs.

What really grates is the knowledge that when Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, or any of the young prodigies currently doing the rounds of Premier League grounds does finally, inevitably, get seriously hurt, we will have to listen to endless, insincere, platitudes from a manager who really should know better about how his man isn’t “that kind of player”. And the answer will be, “Yes, yes he is exactly that kind of player and you allowed him to be”.

I’m not sure what ESPN thought they were contributing to this debate with this, either. Apart from being factually incorrect regarding the amount of weeks Bukayo has missed due to injury, the “where’s mommy?” jibes just sound like they’re from an episode of the Sopranos – if it had been written by a lobotomised David Chase – not the serious football debate it purported to be.

It’s ironic that Steve Nicol called for Saka to improve his footballing intelligence, whilst displaying absolutely none of his own, football or otherwise, whatsoever.

Look, I’ve made it all this way and managed not to mention Granit Xhaka being booked for persistent fouling on Saturday (one foul in the match), whilst the aforementioned Matty Cash somehow avoided a booking despite making four fouls in the match.

Ooops…

Dermot Gallagher said Xhaka had it coming, I say Gallagher shouldn’t be allowed to talk about refereeing decisions on TV ever again.

As somebody said at the weekend, please make it make sense!

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It's a family affair... third generation Gooner, obsessed with Arsenal since the 80's. I've been writing about that obsession and, ever so occasionally, the team since 2004 in a variety of places, but have found a natural home here. As you will find out if you stick around long enough, I am a huge fan of Santi Cazorla. I'm extremely fond of cheese, Marmite, Pipers Salt n' Vinegar crisps, Pilsner Urquell, vodka tonics and absinthe. I am also hopelessly obsessed with Depeche Mode.