Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: Gunners leapfrog back to the top (video)

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Jack Wilshere’s latest highly skilled goal and an equally proficient assist before the break Monday propelled Arsenal, which leapfrogged back to the top of a tight Premier League table, overtaking Chelsea and Manchester City at the completion of Round 21.

Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the Midlands reversed the early, alarming result in North London, as Paul Lambert’s young club had prevailed over Gunners on opening day at the Emirates, 3-1.

But that seemed so, so long ago as Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla helped the Premier League leaders stay comfortably in control through most of Monday’s match at Villa Park.

Monday’s match turned on three highly eventful minutes, just after the half-hour mark. First came a big choice from referee Neil Swarbrick; he could have potentially shown red to Gunners defender Ignacio Monreal in the 32nd minute after he got tangled up with Aston Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor, who was proving a nuisance here and there for the visitors’ back line.

Agbonlahor was some distance from goal and slightly out to the right, but still may have been in alone on goal but for Monreal’s late tackle, which was cynical or just clumsy, based surely on your point of view. Either way, Swarbrick produced the yellow, and that was only the beginning of the bad timings about to arrive in heavy doses around Villa Park.

Just two minutes later, there were Monreal and Ozil connecting efficiently along the left. Cazorla did his part by dragging defenders away with a well-timed, convincing dummy run into middle. Monreal’s ball then found an onrushing Wilshere, who needed two high-quality touches to push the ball past U.S. international Brad Guzan, just inside the far post.

Guzan was blameless once again two minutes past that as Wilshere reacted quickly on a poor moment in Villa’s midfield. After an unforced Villa turnover, Wilshere quickly found Olivier Giroud, the striker who keeps doing just enough to keep his place in Arsenal’s bigger plans. Giroud finished with pressure quickly approaching for a 2-0 lead.

Villa produced very little until Christian Benteke’s long-awaited breakthrough in the 76th minute. Villa had barely threatened Gunners’ keeper Wojciech Szczesny when a Carorla turnover in Arsenal’s end provided a needed boost around the ground. Benteke’s diving header at the far post cut the margin in half and ended the Aston Villa striker’s lengthy goalless spell, one that stretched nearly four months.

The game’s other turning point came in the 14th minute as Aston Villa defender Nathan Baker was felled when hit in the face by a hard shot. He was taken into the locker room – reports later said he was mildly concussed but otherwise OK – leaving the home team frightfully short of defenders. Baker was one of three center backs for Villa, as Lambert gambled with something different in an effort to slow first-place Arsenal, now with just one loss in its last nine Premier League matches.

LINEUPS:

Aston Villa: Guzan; Clark, Vlaar, Baker (Bacuna 21); Lowton, El Ahmadi (Weimann 73), Westwood, Delph, Luna; Benteke, Agbonlahor.

Goal: Benteke 76

Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal (Gibbs 66); Flamini, Wilshere; Gnabry (Rosicky 69; Oxlade-Chamberlain 86), Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud.

Goals: Wilshere (34), Giroud (35)

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen miss out as sickness-hit Tottenham Hotspur visits struggling Southampton at St. Mary’s on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

That opens up spots in the lineup for Michel Vorm and Moussa Sissoko, as Spurs aim to go level on points with fourth-place Liverpool.

Saints dipped into the drop zone when Stoke City won on Saturday, but will sit 14th if they can spring a home win over Spurs.

Mauricio Pellegrino is giving Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini, as well as in-form James Ward-Prowse, the starters’ chance to stop the rot. Southampton is winless in 10 league matches, but has drawn three of the last five.

LINEUPS

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Lemina, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Hojbjerg, Gabbiadini. Subs: Forster, Pied, Bednarek, Davis, Boufal, Redmond, Obafemi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Dembele, Sissoko, Dele, Son, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Trippier, Walker-Peters, Wanyama, Lamela, Llorente.

Making sense of the Silva firing: Should’ve let him walk?

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Watford fired manager Marco Silva on Sunday, blaming Everton’s recruitment of the Portuguese boss for his failure, and it seems his replacement has already been identified as Javi Gracia.

I mean, holy smoke: So much for “easy like Sunday morning.”

The Hornets have been poor for some time, and their drop from chasing an unlikely European position to a spot on the fringes of the relegation race does stretch back to time Everton was repeatedly asking to hire Silva.

Funny thing: Perhaps letting him walk would’ve been the right decision.

What Silva did in the first quarter of this season and his lauded attempt to save Hull City last season may recall his overachievement at Estoril in Portugal, but the 40-year-old worked wonders at league powers Sporting CP and Olympiacos.

In the case of the latter, Silva led Thrylos to an absurd record of 38W-3D-7L before quitting after one season.

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider, too: Watford under owner Gino Pozzo has been quick to change manager, which is a sign the club values — to quote longtime Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon — “Jims and Joes more than x’s and o’s.”

As Sam Allardyce, the man who was hired by Everton, has joined Ronald Koeman as bosses unable to get the Toffees’ talented roster humming, it’s worth asking whether both Watford and Everton would’ve been better off had the Silva “transfer” went down at Goodison Park.

Watford has eight losses in 11 matches, handing three points to a variety of teams who’ve struggled to find wins this season: Swansea City, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Huddersfield Town. The Hornets have also drawn Southampton.

Everton under both Koeman and Allardyce has done the opposite: the Toffees have too much talent to religiously fail against the lower clubs. This season, which also saw a short run for caretaker boss David Unsworth, their wins are over Stoke City, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Swansea.

The Toffees big slump has seen a pair of draws with woeful West Bromwich Albion and a loss at Bournemouth.

Which brings us back to Watford under Silva. Despite its long slump, the club is performing in a way more suited for Everton’s talent than the Hornets’ bunch (which certainly isn’t poor). Consider:

Consider that Watford has 49.5 percent possession on the season, behind only Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Southampton (Everton has 46.4 and that number has regressed under Allardyce).

Also, Watford is ahead of Everton in pass completion percentage, shots per game, goals, shots allowed per game, and dribbles per game.

All this with the Toffees getting some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the league from Jordan Pickford. His 81 saves are second to Lukasz Fabianski and his seven in the six-yard box are joint-top with Mat Ryan.

So, yeah, Everton probably had the right idea in trying to get Silva, who was obviously interested in the job. The Toffees’ buys of Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott are only going to up the ante at Goodison Park, and Allardyce does not have the record of getting talent to reach its potential (at least not in a decade).

Everton’s top performers this year according to advanced stats sites WhoScored and Squawka are ranked 82nd in the Premier League (Mason Holgate) and 103rd in the league (Ashley Williams), respectively.

All this goes to not just say that Silva has done a decent job at Watford, but beg why they’ve decided to fire the boss midway through a transfer window. And considering the Hornets would’ve received compensation of some sort for the move, it’s even more of a head scratcher

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).