Arsenal 2 – 1 Aston Villa
1 – 0 Cazorla (6)
1 – 1 Weimann (66)
2 – 1 Cazorla (85)
The anniversary of the death of Bobby Moore reminds me of happier Arsenal times. Plough Lane, August 1988. On that balmy Summer day, Wimbledon had not just been beaten but utterly destroyed, Alan Smith grabbing a hat-trick as George Graham’s charges took their first steps on the way to their League title. I had been entirely unaware of Moore until the final whistle, absorbed by the match and enjoying the victory. We turned to queue – in an orderly manner – and my gaze fell upon the former England captain, conducting his broadcasting duties for LBC. Shock and awe has long since been misappropriated by the undesirable elements of life but that was the impact twenty-five years ago.
I stumbled across the back page of my cheque book (ask your parents kids) recently, a green scrap carrying a unique signature above one other. George Graham was equally magnanimous that day albeit surprised to find a twenty two year old lad wandering through the dressing room area unchallenged. “That was brilliant“, give or take an adjective or two, was how I described the win as he signed with a grin; the politeness of my thanks for the signature probably saving me fromejection from the inner sanctum.
Would the Premier League welcome an unimproved non-league ground into their fold now? Probably not. Did I say probably…How football has changed.
And yet it stays the same; the result was all that mattered.
Arsenal knew that the points were needed and on a biting afternoon, they delivered. It was not a smooth, cohesive performance but given recent results, that was not surprising. The imperative out of the afternoon was to keep the pressure on the Champions League places and in that sense, a draw at Eastlands this afternoon would best serve their purpose.
The home side got off to the perfect start. Cazorla and Wilshere served early notice of Arsenal’s intent but Villa did not take notice; Cazorla found space in the area and when his initial strike was blocked, the Spaniard drilled the rebound through a forest of legs, past Guzan. The visitors reborn confidence was evident as they sought a hit and run equaliser. Gabby Agbonlahor is the footballing equivalent of Kevin Rowlands – stunning in the early days with sporadic hints of glory in a meandering career – and was a thorn in Arsenal’s side for the afternoon. His rapid response to Cazorla’s opener served notice that the Premier League strugglers were not going to give up easily.
As much as the visitors pressed, Szczesny proved to be a formidable barrier, denying N’Zogbia as Villa pressed forward. All the while Arsenal were struggling to capitalise on their early advantage, passing but going nowhere, offering no threat for a significant spell in the first half. But they dug in and did not capitulate, a policy which served them well as the half drew to its close.
The storm weathered, Arsenal came back into the match. Diaby and Giroud combined to offer Walcott a sight of goal, his effort curled wide of the post. Giroud was denied followed good work from Cazorla and once more following Arteta’s shot but Arsenal were stuttering, too many languid performances in the centre of the pitch were allowing Villa to seize the initiative too often.
The visitors started brightly but Arsenal’s grip on the match tightened. Warnings were still served to the hosts but Ramsey’s introduction injected some bite into the midfield and released the mental shackles placed on his colleagues. Wilshere, Giroud and Walcott all had their chances before Villa bit back. Having denied the visitors in the first half, Szczesny’s culpability in the equaliser is undeniable. An Arsenal corner was cleared, headers exchanged in the centre of the park before Weimann advanced unchallenged, shooting from distance through the hands of Arsenal’s Polish custodian. His failure capped a horrible passage of play, the lack of defensive cover exposed with a poor goal to concede.
Arsène introduced Podolski for Jenkinson as the home side pursued the winner, pegging back the Premier League strugglers, piercing the visitors defence repeatedly. It would be easier to list those whose efforts were not denied by Guzan and his defensive cohorts. And as the clock wore down, Arsenal’s search for the winner became increasingly tense; shots peppered the visitors and as the clock ran down, Wilshere lifted a pass into the path of the ever-dependable Monreal. The Spaniard pulled the cross back into the path of the onrushing Cazorla whose shot found the back of the net with unerring accuracy, points secured.
Post-match, the manager praised the mental attitude of his charges. He has a week to work on the performance levels ahead of next weekend’s North London Derby. The pressure they will be under to achieve a result will be immense, defeat as much unthinkable for pride as next season’s Champions League aspirations.
I understand the concerns over the performance yesterday, the reticence to take the game by the throat and kill it off quickly following Cazorla’s opener. However, steadying the ship following two flaccid cup exits was more important and that required a win. Next weekend’s North London Derby will need performance levels to be improved, especially as it will be crucial to next season’s Champions League aspirations.