November 27, 2010 5 Comments
Clark 52, 70; Arshavin 39, Nasri 45, Chamakh 56, Wilshere 90
For the second Saturday in succession, Arsenal kicked off at lunchtime with the chance of going top of the Premier League, took a 2-0 half-time lead and conceded an early second half goal. But unlike last week’s North London derby, which ended in a humiliating defeat, the Gunners sidestepped a feeling of déjà vu and recovered to hold off a spirited fight-back from a youthful Aston Villa side bolstered by the experience of 37-year old former Arsenal legend Robert Pires. Victory put them top of the league for a couple of hours, until Manchester United‘s thumping 7-1 win over Blackburn.
With the exception of Jack Wilshere and Tomáš Rosický – replacing Denilson and the injured Cesc Fàbregas in the midfield engine room – Arsène Wenger selected the same starting XI who had folded so dramatically last weekend as the visitors took the field with the following line-up:
Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy
Rosický – Song – Wilshere
Nasri – Chamakh – Arshavin
As against Tottenham, Arsenal flew out of the traps. Although it took them 39 minutes to find the net, the visitors exerted near complete dominance in the first half, slicing through Villa’s midfield time and time again. The opening 20 minutes were played almost entirely in the home team’s half, as Arsenal created and then squandered several presentable chances with the kind of hesitant finishing characteristic of a team whose confidence has been severely dented over the past week.
Marouane Chamakh – inside the first 20 seconds - Rosický, Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri were all denied in that opening spell by a combination of Brad Friedel and scuffed or inaccurate shots. But when the breakthrough finally came, it owed much to a mix-up between Villa defenders Luke Young and James Collins. The pair got in each other’s way as they both came for a ball on the halfway line. There was still a lot to do as Arshavin picked up the ball near the touchline, but he advanced purposefully infield before driving his shot across Friedel, the keeper’s hand unable to keep the ball out.
The floodgates threatened to open. Villa gave the ball away straight from the kickoff and Arshavin’s defence-splitting pass allowed Nasri to round Friedel on his weaker left foot, only to find the side netting from a less difficult angle than he scored from last week.
Arsenal would not be denied, though. In the final minute of the half, Bacary Sagna‘s excellent first-time cross was powered goalwards by Chamakh’s head, only for Friedel to save brilliantly at full length. Arshavin floated the corner across to Nasri on the edge of area, and his sweetly struck volley took a deflection on its way in.
2-0 at half-time was, if anything, flattering to Villa. They had offered little threat during the first half, with Lukasz Fabiański called into action so rarely it was surprising he hadn’t developed frostbite. Ashley Young had their only real chance, scooping over from an angle at the back post, while a cross appeared to catch Wilshere’s raised arm shortly before the opening goal.
It was no surprise when Gerard Houllier made a change for the second half, opting for the youthful energy of Nathan Delfouneso over the veteran craft of Pires. With little to lose, Villa pressed forward and it took them just six minutes to find a reward, although it was not without some controversy.
There was nothing wrong with Ciaran Clark‘s deft chest down and volley from 20 yards out – his first senior goal – which flew like a rocket into the top corner. But John Carew, who had gone down hurt earlier in the move, was standing in an offside position directly between Clark and Fabiański. Replays clearly showed the Polish keeper having to lean to his left to get a sight of the ball as Clark dispatched it to his right. Even with an unobstructed view he might not have prevented the goal, but that’s not the point. Was Carew interfering with play? Absolutely.
However, unlike last weekend, Arsenal responded quickly to the setback and restored their two-goal advantage within four minutes. Arshavin freed Rosický to run at the heart of the Villa defence, and the Czech international’s slide-rule pass was met by Chamakh, who coolly toe-poked the ball underneath Friedel’s body.
With the cushion restored, Arsenal took the sting out of the game for the next 15 minutes, enjoying long spells of possession and creating more and better opportunities than the hosts. However, the soft centre at the heart of their defence is never far from the surface, and with Ashley Young moving inside as Carew was hauled off, both his and Delfouneso’s pace ensured the visitors never truly looked comfortable.
With 20 minutes left, Arsenal’s defence was breached by the simplest of set-pieces. Young swept a corner to the edge of the box for Richard Dunne to nod back in and Clark, unchallenged, flicked a backwards header off the under-side of the bar to set up a grandstand finish which never quite materialised.
While never looking entirely secure, Arsenal were able to keep Villa at arm’s length, with the home side producing little other than a couple of tame efforts from Dunne. But it was not until the third of four minutes of injury time that the visitors finally made the three points secure. Arsenal broke forward, and Chamakh calmly chipped the ball across the face of goal for the unmarked Wilshere to score with a stooping header. It was the fourth time in the last six league meetings between these teams that there has been a goal in the 90th minute or later.
Wenger will have been pleased with his team’s fourth consecutive Premier League away win. Arsenal have the best away record in the division, with 17 of their 29 points coming away from the Emirates Stadium. However, their home form and the brittleness which has seen them concede seven times in the second half of their three games over the past week remains a concern.
However, he was justifiably pleased that a disappointing week had finished on a positive note:
We played well. Villa had a good response in the second half but we managed to find the resources to win the game. At 2-0 at half time you feel among the players that what happened last week had an impact in their head. When it came back to 2-1, it was an interesting test for my team. We could crumble or we could score again – and we scored again. Villa are a good side with good strikers and a solid defence but overall I think we dominated the game.
Arshavin’s often indifferent performances have been a major source of fan frustration this season, but Wenger was delighted with the Russian’s productivity here:
He has been very sharp today, I feel. I felt he was always dangerous. A good test is when you like a player to have the ball and you always like him to have the ball because you feet he could make the difference.
The platform for Arsenal’s victory was the midfield trio of Rosický, Wilshere and Alex Song, with the Czech player’s intelligent distribution and off-the-ball running setting the tempo for the rest of the team. Between them, they blunted Villa’s central players, cutting off the source of supply both to Carew and wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. Indeed, the England pair were eclipsed on the flanks by the perception and creativity of Arshavin and Nasri who, aside from their goals, provided a constant threat both out wide and cutting inside. With Chamakh’s movement fully occupying Dunne and Collins, the home side spent the majority of the match on the back foot. For Arsenal, attack is the best form of defence indeed.
And when Villa did get the ball forward, Sébastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny generally dealt with Carew’s aerial power well, while Sagna and Gaël Clichy struck the right balance between defence and attack, giving Downing and Young few chances to run free at pace. Clark’s goal – the Carew offside notwithstanding – was just one of those things, and my only real criticism of the defensive performance was the ease with which first Dunne and then Clark were able to get their heads to the ball for the second goal. But overall, this was a much more solid showing than we saw in the Spurs and Braga games.
Arsenal now face a Carling Cup quarter-final tie at home to Wigan on Tuesday evening before the visit of Fulham - those most homesick of travellers – offers the best possible opportunity to put their home troubles to rest next Saturday. At the end of a week which has seen the label ‘crisis club’ prematurely attached to them, Arsenal fans should be pleased with both the result and the performance here today.