Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa
Following their morale sapping defeats against Blackburn in the FA cup and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, it was imperative for Arsenal to return to winning ways at home to relegation threatened Aston Villa on Saturday.
Although the Gunners performance left much to be desired, Arsene Wenger could at least take solace from the fact his side had the character required to bounce back and secure all three points. It would have been easy for the players to allow a horrid week, which Wenger himself labelled a crisis, to continue to affect their confidence, especially when Aston Villa equalised through Andy Weimann. Yet to their credit, the Gunners dug deep and managed to find a winning strike from Santi Cazorla, with only five minutes left on the clock.
Arsenal’s progress this season has been largely undermined by their recurrent slow starts, yet on Saturday they actually began the game rather well, immediately creating goal scoring opportunities. Within the first few minutes, Jack Wilshere, who as against Bayern, was deployed further up the pitch, was sent through on goal. However the young Englishman seemed to hesitate slightly before taking his shot and as Brad Guzan was quick off his line, the angle reducing all the time, the American shot stopper was able to pull off a relatively comfortable save.
Despite the missed opportunity, the Arsenal faithful did not have to endure a long wait before their side broke the deadlock, with the Gunners taking the lead in only the sixth minute of the game. Wilshere played a square ball into Cazorla and although the Spaniard’s initial shot was blocked by Nathan Baker, the ball fell straight back to Cazorla and the former Malaga midfielder made no mistake with his second attempt, firing low and hard past Guzan’s reach and into the bottom corner of the net.
Much has been made of the Gunners sluggish starts, especially against the top teams, but having taken an early lead against a side whose own confidence was at a low ebb following a horrendous season so far, the Arsenal faithful would have been forgiven for expecting their team to kick on and power past Aston Villa. Strangely, the complete opposite happened as the Gunners suddenly began to play within themselves while at the same time the visitors grew more and more into the game, exploiting Arsenal’s poor defending to create several dangerous chances of their own.
On the Gunners left hand side, Weimann was causing Monreal problems and having managed to outwit the Spaniard, he unleashed a low ball into the box, which Gabby Agbonlahor was unfortunate not to get on the end of. Arsenal didn’t heed the warning signs and a few minutes later Weimann raced clear once again, before cutting the ball back to N’Zogbia, whose powerful effort was stopped by Szczesny but not turned round the post. Luckily for the Polish international and the home side, Arsenal managed to clear the ball during the ensuing goalmouth scramble.
Paul Lambert’s side may be sitting in the relegation zone, but the manner in which the Scot had set his team up was causing Arsenal problems. The visitors would sit back and defend quite deep, allowing the home side to commit players forward, before catching them on the break. This was a very cunning tactic and with the Gunners continuing to struggle with their defensive shape, on several occasions, Villa were just one good final pass away from bearing down on goal. Had they been playing against a top team, Arsenal may well have been made to pay.
Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession in the second half, the Gunners didn’t manage to create enough goal scoring opportunities and soon seemed to run out of ideas. Time and time again they would switch the ball out wide before attempting to cross it into the box, but the cross would either get blocked, or be too high or there just wouldn’t be enough Arsenal players in the box to effect the Villa defence. If the opposition are sitting deep, it is only natural for the Gunners to attempt to break them down by spreading the play and delivering crosses into the box. However without getting enough bodies into the area, it doesn’t matter how good the delivery is the chances of it finding the one Arsenal player in the box are remote at best.
Throughout the game, every time an attack from the home side broke down, Wenger’s team were vulnerable to the counter attack. In the 68th minute, Villa fully exploited Arsenal’s defensive frailties to restore parity. A Gunners corner was cleared by Weimann on the edge of his own penalty area. Carl Jenkison, stood just behind the half way line, could only head the long punt up field, straight to N’Zogbia, who duly fed the on rushing Weimann. With the Arsenal defenders back pedalling, the young Austrian was allowed to run on goal unchallenged before firing a shot which Szczesny should have easily saved. The Arsenal number one is enduring a horrendous recent drop in form, making costly errors in each of his last three appearances. The main problem seems to be that he has no real competition for his place in the first team, which has resulted in complacency and ultimately his level of performances has suffered greatly.
Although it was frustrating for the Gunners to be pegged back against a side they really should be beating, the team’s response was admirable. Having endured a torrid week, it would have been easy for the players to feel sorry for themselves at this stage and simply allow the game to pass them by. But instead Wenger’s side collectively gritted their teeth and dug deep to press forward in search of the winner. This show of character was duly rewarded in the 85th minute thanks to a wonderful clipped ball by Wilshere, over the top of Weimann and into the path of the overlapping Monreal. The Spaniard raced to the by-line before cutting the ball back for his compatriot, Santi Cazorla, who slid the ball home to the relief of the Emirates crowd.
Arsenal were clearly not at their best on Saturday, but the most important thing was to take away a crucial three points to keep themselves in the race for a top four finish. The Gunners can now gain some much needed confidence from this result as they seek to move forward and put the terrible defeats of the past week behind them. With Chelsea losing to Manchester City, Arsenal are now only two points behind them as they prepare for what promises to be a pivotal North London derby. Each and every player wearing a red and white shirt must stand up and be counted next Sunday. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.