Arsenal is going through a period that defies both description and logic, but it's certainly fun. After a week of showing them in the microcosm, this time the best and the worst symbolic were distilled in a mere 90 minutes.
They had been so careless in designing Watford and so vibrant in defeating Eintracht Frankfurt that any attempt to predict what might happen against Aston Villa seemed futile. At halftime they were a goal behind John McGinn and a man on Ainsley Maitland-Niles' red card; In the end, they were wide-eyed as Nicolas Pépé's penalty, a Calum Chambers goal and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang free-kick, which had turned into the afternoon, the second of those goals after Wesley re-established Villa's lead. A game that could have become a defining low point in the Unai Emery era has become a game that can still provide some sort of foundation for takeoff.
That seemed a long way off, even though McGinn's goal came when Arsenal seemed to be at the top. The problem, when your defense is usually so careless, is that a lack of capitalization on good spells risks extreme punishment. This latest display of his ranger collection came when Maitland-Niles, apparently pleased to offer Anwar El Ghazi all the time he needed to check his right foot, also failed to do anything about the ensuing cross. If this was an abandonment of duty, Matteo Guendouzi's failure to stay with McGinn was criminally negligent. Guendouzi stood still as Villa's midfielder entered the area and deflected Bernd Leno's shot.
Maitland-Niles missed a presentable chance in just over a minute after good work by Bukayo Saka. Seven minutes before the break, he found room for one more error. Already booked to cut El Ghazi, he went into a difficult challenge with Neil Taylor and won the ball. But his follow-up caught the man and gave referee Jon Moss a decision to make. He accepted quickly enough, quickly reaching the second yellow card, but did not make it official until Maitland-Niles spent two minutes receiving treatment for a sustained strike while tackling.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles slid over Aston Villa's Neil Taylor to receive a red card. Photography: Michael Steele / Getty Images
Off the ball, Arsenal had been a disaster. Guendouzi's midfielder Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka were nowhere to be seen when Villa appeared on the field. A hologram would have impressed more than Ceballos when Trezeguet ran through him to create a shot chance for McGinn, who would test Leno twice before scoring.
When Sokratis Papastathopoulos pretended that Wesley poked him in the face in a pathetic attempt to create a ten-handed game, the sheer scale of the quarterback's despair aptly summed up the first half of Arsenal. Emery sought to bolster things by introducing Chambers to the unlucky Saka, who had started his first top match after an excellent showing in Frankfurt on Thursday.
However, they remained in the game and began to force some hasty breaks when Guendouzi, much more eager to take responsibility now, made a determined run in the area. Bjorn Engels took him; a penalty was inevitable and Peppe pierced it in the middle.
The parity lasted less than two minutes and this was largely for Jack Grealish. His left run left three Arsenal players behind and made room for a center that Wesley, ahead of Guendouzi, closed the scoring in the bottom corner. For the second time, Villa got what they deserved at that moment; to Arsenal everything seemed so familiar.
Guendouzi, now operating as a possessed man, hit the post with a low 25-yard drive and David Luiz forced Tom Heaton to take a free kick. The appetite for another return between players and fans was quite clear and, notably, was satiated with 10 minutes of play. Tyrone Mings had so far been a Rolls Royce in the back of Villa, but tried to be too clever as he tried to nod to Taylor. Chambers was alert enough to step in and poke the roof of the net from an angle, and now it was anyone's game.
It turned out to be from Aubameyang. He himself won the free-kick, fouled Engels, and promptly passed a barrier and a questionable post to topple the house. The Arsenal had unleashed itself in an exciting and thunderous style; now they simply long for the day when this perversion becomes unnecessary.