Arsenal 5 – 0 Aston Villa
1 – 0 Giroud (8)
2 – 0 Özil (56)
3 – 0 Walcott (63)
4 – 0 Cazorla (74 pen)
5 – 0 Bellerin (90)
Theo Walcott apparently called it the most one-sided match he had ever played in. I doubt that it’s true – I’m sure the seven-goal demolition of Slavia Prague in 2007 qualifies as that. Or perhaps you can recall another. I’m struggling to remember a game where Arsenal were not dominant in possession statistics and could easily have scored three or four more.
Perhaps Walcott has a point though. It was ridiculously easy for the first forty-five minutes and yet Villa were still in it, carving out a late opportunity when Weimann brought a great save from Ospina. Arsenal should have been out of sight by then anyway. Cazorla rattled the post, Guzan was by far the busier of the two ‘keepers for the most part and there was the contentiously disallowed goal; it was probably the correct decision but the margins were tight.
Maybe it highlights the sheer pointlessness in possession statistics. Yet again, Arsenal had less of the ball than their opponents. Yet again, Arsenal were more ruthless. The first two goals underline that it isn’t possession which counts, it’s what you do with the ball when you have it.
That’s not to say Arsenal have become acolytes of John Beck and Graham Taylor; they are simply more efficient with their passing and movement. Efficient? Ruthless? It’s only words after all. The outcome is the same. More measured and intended than anything as basic as relying on percentages and channels. Perhaps in theory it is no better than the stereotypical English game. In practice, it is certainly far more aesthetically pleasing.
The stats underline how misleading they can be. Arsenal dominated the match, there’s little argument with that. Enjoying more possession meant that Villa carved opportunities but the genuine moments of concern were few and far between. More importantly, they were dealt with effectively by Ospina whose form in recent weeks has certainly provided a strong platform from which to permanently claim the Number One shirt.
Returning to the team is one thing, finding form quickly quite another. Theo Walcott had a couple of bites at the cherry from the substitutes bench but two goals in two games suggest that he is returning to his stride quickly after a year out of the game. To expect any more is optimistic but it is another string to Arsenal’s attacking bow.
His movement in an attacking sense was liberating to watch. Not chained to the right flank, he seems to have added to his speed with positional sense, flirting with the left for his goal, adopting an old inside-forward mentality rather than anything else. Maybe he is slower – to be honest, I couldn’t tell you if he has lost the mythical half-a-yard of pace; he doesn’t seem to have to my untrained eye.
Alexis wasn’t missed yesterday and that, being honest, was something I didn’t think I would say. Mesut Özil’s return contributes to that. A roaming menace for Villa to deal with, he was the architect of their downfall at Villa Park earlier in the season. He remained so yesterday, a guided flick into Giroud’s pass for the opening; a calm and collected finish for the second.
Arsène spoke of selection headaches post-match. He has them for all the right reasons at the moment, an opportune time for players to return. The question on everyone’s mind this week will be whether Alexis is going to be fit for the weekend. Wenger said that there was no question of the Chilean playing against Villa; let’s hope an element of that was caution and a desire to ensure he returns for the North London Derby.
Afterwards, Arsène quickly identified defensive stability as a key reason for the improved form. There is a solidity which was previously missing but at times, a familiar looseness in their play. For the most part, the flanks were routinely patrolled with the Spanish pairing understanding and implementing the need to keep one back when the other ventures forward.
Monreal in particular was a useful attacking ally for Cazorla and Özil. But it is Hector Bellerin who is garnering the attention. Questions are asked about whether Carl Jenkinson returns from West Ham. Perhaps the young Spaniard will go on loan for next season to a top-flight club to gain more experience, returning as Mathieu Debuchy passes the wrong side of thirty.
Whatever the case, his finish for the fifth as the clock ran down belied his inexperience. Calm, collected and a reassuring presence of mind to control his shot and not leather the ball. An outstanding goal to cap a good afternoon’s work in the back four.
There is still polish to be added to the game, of course; at his age, you expect that but at the moment, he seems ahead of his rivals for the right back spot in the future and a good run in the side now will only entrench his position.
Clearly pleased with performance – as he should be – Arsène was, as expected, cautious in his optimism,
We have maybe found a better consistency. That will be very important until the end [of the season]. Let’s show that we can win more and it shows you as well that when the confidence level is higher and when everybody’s back defensively, it makes a difference. Defensive stability is vital – when you don’t have that, you suffer.
It isn’t just the back four who are defending better. As admirable as Monreal’s consistency was when playing out of position, Mertesacker’s form and confidence has gradually returned with the introduction of a more disciplined team effort. You can’t just put that down to Koscielny’s return; it isn’t.
There’s a genuine sense that Arsenal are defending more as a team, that the words of collective responsibility for protecting clean sheets are being put into practice. It’s more than just Coquelin or anyone occupying a defensive role in the midfield – although that is a major contributing factor – it’s the positional work that is being taken from the training ground to the pitch.
It was missing before; perhaps you can put some down to missing players but others, it’s just about Arsène doing what a host of managers before him have done. The right combination has happened and they are taking full advantage of it. An element of luck, a sprinkling of knowledge, all bound together by hard work and diligence. It’s solid mix and a strong base for the flair players to build upon in attack.
All good stuff, all coming together nicely for a top four challenge. It’s quite a big weekend coming. Southampton’s defeat has opened the race for top four up. Both they and United have ‘routine’ matches next week so it may be this week’s flow turns into an ebb. There’s a long way to go but it’s good to see Arsenal are returning to form.