Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Wilshere (34)
0 – 2 Giroud (35)
1 – 2 Benteke (76)
It all came to life at a late stage, a titanic struggle between ill-matched opponents. Guile, a much prized weapon, was noticeable by its absence in the thrust and parry of a physical battle. The end came just when the spoils threatened to be shared; a violent tug and Arsène was able to take his place on the touchline, the zip of his coat fully drawn.
On the pitch, a comfortable evening turned unnecessarily tense as Arsenal, having established their dominance by half-time, allowed Aston Villa back into the game in final twenty minutes to create an almost barnstorming finish by the hosts. By comparison to their supine performance, the flurry of activity was rousing, it certainly brought the home crowd to life. Arsenal, buoyed by the ever commendable travelling support, had passed Villa into submission to that point. Stats on their own never tell the whole story but an away team with 71% possession at the final whistle is never going to bode well for their hosts.
Post-match, Arsène felt the team were too cautious having established their two-goal advantage. They weren’t helped by stray passes and the ball being cheaply surrendered as new life was breathed into Aston Villa with Christian Benteke’s goal. The Belgian international might have equalised with a similar chance shortly afterwards but his header was directed at Wojciech Szczesny and the points which Arsenal’s performance for seventy minutes deserved.
The result was decided in sixty first-half seconds. Jack Wilshere, maligned in the media for indiscretions on and off the pitch, produced two moments to bring sparkle to the occasion. He opened the scoring following Nacho Monreal’s galloping strides down the left, controlling the Spaniard’s pass and guiding the ball into the net with two sublime touches. Less than a minute later, the England international had harassed Delph into ceding possession before releasing Olivier Giroud, the Frenchman’s shot deflected past the sprawling Guzan and the match was effectively over.
Wilshere suffers the weight of expectations. The slings and arrows are more readily hurled in his direction from the media than most other players, seemingly keen to bring about misfortune for the player they hail as his country’s great – only – hope for the future. Last night, in front of the watching England manager, he produced his most consistent ninety minutes for a while, probing the Villa defence with passes and movement which lived up to those marks set. It felt like the shackles had been released, maybe it has been the mental pressure he has put himself under or that which he felt supporters had imposed on him. Even his manager believes that Jack is returning to his best form.
It was a good night’s football from the supporters point of view, a very good team performance yet there was always the feeling that Arsenal still had a gear higher they could call upon if needed. Except when we needed it, the acceleration was sluggish, the clutch took a while to bite and the handbrake, well you know what comes next. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that it was only for a small portion of the game, the rest of it was as good as we have played away from home this year. The tone was set very early on with the referee producing a yellow card as backsides settled in seats. The usual inconsistency would return later in the game but to set a marker when other officials excuse poor tackles as getting to the pace of the game, helped the match flow. Of course Mr Swarbrick missed key moments – Agbonlahor would surely have see red for the second yellow he deserved having teed Tomas Rosicky’s nose up for the elbow which caused the substitute to be substituted – but overall, I didn’t think he had a bad game; certainly better than some of his peers over the weekend.
Arsène was rightly pleased with the night’s work,
We had to give a strong response because everybody looks at you and see if you drop points because they have made their points over the weekend so the only way you can deal with that is we were a bit more under pressure when you play last. You know that you’re not allowed to drop any points but you can only give one answer and that is to win the game.
City and Chelsea had put pressure on with their wins, Arsenal returned the favour. Over the coming three weeks, the other two find themselves in the position of playing last on a weekend, culminating in the pair meeting at Stamford Bridge in a Monday night fixture early next month. Arsenal have the chance to put some points in the bag ahead of that, hoping that one of the other two will drop points in their matches. The key thing is that Arsenal have to keep winning; the pressure will build as the weeks go by and for these players, it is a novel experience. So far, they have responded by getting the results they need.
Of course, it would not be Arsenal if the night had been straightforward but Arsène may privately be wondering if he is that unlucky. As Kieran Gibbs returns to fitness, Nacho Monreal has picked up a knock – maybe a broken metatarsal – that solves that selection problem. Tomas Rosicky will miss a few matches with his “bad nose” just as Aaron Ramsey is knocking on the door for his place in the side once more. It solves those immediate headaches whilst at the same time creating others as key squad players are missing for a few games. The return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is as timely as could be wished for.
But Arsène could not have asked for more, at the final whistle the players had achieved their objective. It was not an ugly win, it was not an aesthetically pleasing performance over ninety minutes, it was a bit of both. And a bit of both turned out to be a bit of alright.