Arsene’s comment post match summed up the performance. Teams that win titles grind out results, irrespective of the performance of their opponents, or they put teams to the sword with displays that take the breath away. Yesterday we got a bit of both.
The opening forty-five minutes was, I would venture, as good a half as any we have produced away from The Emirates and on a par with any of the home games as well. The passing, as the carol goes, was ‘crisp and even’; the movement was everything that Arsene demands and more. A polar opposite in the second half when the galvanising effects of Martin O’Neill’s oratory to his players was plain to see; they disrupted Arsenal’s flow successfully and forced them onto the back foot. A win was ground out.
The recuperative powers of Alexander Hleb need to be bottled, put into a syringe and injected into Fabregas and van Persie, leaving enough for the Belarusian to recover from the injury sustained yesterday. However it was done, the recovery proved how crucial he is to the 4-4-1-1 formation Arsene prefers to employ on the road. His close control and willingness to be a focal point for the attack and excellent passing, proving how crucial he is to the team.
Not that he was the sole reason for the performance. Flamini and Diarra in midfield provided a defensive bulwark that Villa struggled to cope with in the first half; having a partner who was willing to stay back allowed Flamini to move forward comfortably. Whilst the absence of Cesc is always felt, it was minimised with a fluid attacking display.
Yet the team still had to come from behind as, against the run of play, Carew made an excellent run and cross just short of the quarter hour. Neither Gallas nor Toure got sufficient on the ball to clear and it fell to Gardner to drive home. The only part I would criticise for the goal would be that Gardner was allowed to run unmarked almost half the length of the pitch; a midfielder should have been aware of it nor did Clichy pick him up. The left backs’ positioning seemed to be fine for the cross but was too static when he noticed the threat that was posed.
The goal though spurred Arsenal on and constant pressure on Villa led to Adebayor and Eboue creating space for Sagna to cross. Rosicky and Flamini took part in a ‘Gentlemen’s Excuse Me’ before the Frenchman taking decisive action to ferociously drive the ball past Carson from the edge of the area. It was all that was deserved and a sign of more to come.
Hleb robbed Barry of the ball and set Sagna free to deliver a telling cross that Adebayor rose between two defenders to power past Carson. A deficit turned round and Arsenal in control.
The half time interval disrupted that and allowed O’Neill to instil some fight into his charges. They were sharper in the tackle; hassled and harried with a purpose that had been missing from the opening half. Creating more chances, they feel that they deserved a point and were unlucky not get it. Carew’s header thundered back from the bar with Almunia beaten, the nearest they came.
Arguably, the Norwegian might not have been on the pitch for his challenge on Hleb was marginally short of dangerous and definitely reckless. We await news of the injury. The match was the footballing equivalent of ‘rope-a-dope’, Villa put Arsenal under constant pressure yet could not find the killer blow. Had they equalised, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they would have won. They did not and the points were taken by Arsenal.
It was a crucial win; defeat in Seville had allowed questions to be asked. They carry on with idiots like Tim Sherwood unable to let go of their past and perpetuating the myth that the ‘bubble will burst’. At some point, I have no doubt it will, the question being is how much of a comfort zone will the team have. At the moment, we have
five six points on United having played the same number of games. The pressure has shifted northwards as they have to beat Fulham now to get back in touch. For Arsenal, the game at Newcastle is crucial for a win will confirm that gap, bringing us into line with the games that others have played.
Hleb’s contribution was highlighted by Flamini and Adebayor. The Togolese forward commented,
He has the technique, he has the ability and I think he is one of the greatest players I have played with
Whilst his French counterpart opined,
…he played very well today. I hope he has not got a big injury and I hope he will be ready for Wednesday because he is an important player for us
The theme of unity in the squad continues though with Flamini’s concern being driven more by his concern for Hleb as a friend rather than a colleague.
A tough test passed, three points garnered from opponents who are doing well this season. It was the first of three away games on the trot. Now to the North East and hopefully more nails put into the coffin of ‘they are not good enough and have not been tested’. Long may that theory Rest In Peace.