Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2 – Jack On The Money As Arsenal Scrape The Win
Two goals inside a minute from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud were enough for Arsenal to return to the top of the Premier League, despite a nervy finish at Villa Park in which Christian Benteke’s late header that gave Aston Villa a route back into the game.
Arsenal welcomed back Wojciech Szczesny in goal following his rest for the FA Cup game against Spurs last week in an otherwise unchanged back four. Mathieu Flamini started in place of the injured Mikel Arteta and Mesut Ozil came into the side, replacing Tomas Rosicky who started on the bench. Olivier Giroud was back in the starting eleven up front.
We started the much brighter of the two sides and enjoyed large spells of possession in the opening half although chances were few and far between. Giroud did glance a header wide off a Bacary Sagna cross in the opening moments and another dangerous cross from the right back a few minutes later also came to no avail.
Aston Villa rarely threatened in the first period, but Fabian Delph did strike one wide from the edge of the area after Arsenal lost possession. Karim El Ahmadi also side footed a volley over the bar and the home side were forced into an early change as Nathan Baker took a Serge Gnabry shot to the face off a corner, knocking him unconscious for a minute and requiring him to be stretchered off in nasty looking circumstances.
In the 34th minute Arsenal were in front. Nacho Monreal played a one-two with Ozil that played in the Spaniard into plenty of space down our left and the full back’s ball across goal went just behind Giroud but into the path of Wilshere, who took a great touch and rolled the ball into the net past Brad Guzan.
Only 17 seconds after Villa restarted, we doubled our advantage. Wilshere pounced on Delph’s miss-control, clipped the ball into Giroud who got lucky with his touch and converted it well into the far corner despite the pressure of two Villa defenders.
The home side enjoyed a spell of pressure as eight minutes of stoppage time were played to cater for the Baker injury, but there were no problems for Szczesny in goal.
In the second half the onus was on Arsenal to start the way they had in the first and look for a third to kill off the game, but Villa rallied during the break and came out a much better side full of purpose. Bacuna saw a shot from distance head straight at Szczesny, the home side’s first shot on target in the 49th minute.
Arsenal then had the ball in the net in the 55th minute, but the whistle had already gone as Wilshere strayed offside just before Giroud coolly chipped the ball into the net from the edge of the area.
Shortly afterwards, Santi Cazorla found Monreal in space in the Villa area, who cut inside off his left but his shot was blocked upon impact by Vlaar. Monreal went down injured as a result of this contact and was eventually replaced by Kieran Gibbs.
The game opened up a touch after the hour mark as the all-important third goal was up for grabs. Ozil and Gnabry combined before a square ball to Cazorla was shot straight at Guzan. At the other end, Villa put together a decent move of their own resulting in a stinging shot from outside of the area by Westwood, again straight at Szczesny in goal.
Rosicky came on for Gnabry as Wenger looked to add a bit of zip into the side to see us through the final 20 minutes, and Giroud almost added to our tally as he placed the ball just wide of the near post following good link up play with Wilshere and Gibbs involved.
Benteke saw a shot go wide after he somehow chested the ball down and got a shot away despite pressure from our defence, before he clawed Villa back into the game in the 76th minute.
Cazorla gave the ball away poorly in the middle, looking for an ambitious and blind pass forward rather than the easy option back to Gibbs. Lowton picked it up, put in a superb delivery from the right that bounced in between our centre backs and Benteke was on hand at the back post to head it home and give the home side a lifeline.
Villa pushed for an equaliser into the final ten minutes and Per Mertesacker had to crucially deflect a header away from the path of Benteke as he again lurked at the far post.
Rosicky collided with Agbonlahor and had to be taken off because of a nosebleed. On in his place was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his first senior appearance since his opening day injury in the reverse fixture.
We struggled to keep the ball in the final stages and into six minutes of stoppage time, another Lowton cross was met by Benteke but this time he couldn’t get enough on the header to trouble Szczesny.
Arsenal did roam forward as Villa sent everyone forward and we seemed indecisive as to whether or not we should keep the ball or look to kill the game. Wilshere slipped in Cazorla who shot straight at Guzan, and despite the nervy finish we managed to hold firm and see the game out victorious and back at the top of the League.
We made it hard for ourselves; a lot harder than it should’ve been especially given our dominance in the first half. But that dominance wasn’t quite translated into chances, an issue we’ve seen on many occasions this season, as only eight shots were registered on goal with half of them on target.
For a team brimming with so much creativity, it’s a worry that we do sometimes struggle to create as much as we should. Having said that, both goals were excellently taken finishes and the first was borne out of a lovely move down our left hand side.
Wilshere was the best player on the park in my opinion. I’ve been impressed with him over the Christmas period, as I’ve written on previous match blogs, and his goal, assist and Man of the Match award are just rewards for a young man who increasingly looks like the sensational footballer we all know he’s destined to be.
There were calls for Jack to add both goals and assists to his game, and he’s done that so far this season with five goals and three assists already; compared to the two and four he got last campaign. Given the way he’s playing at the moment it’s hard to think he won’t further add to these tallies and these would be useful additions, as we no doubt need players to step up in the absence of Theo Walcott.
Cazorla struggled to make a real impact on the game. He always tried and never gave up on his desire to play positive football, but it just hasn’t been happening for Santi this season. We’ve seen glimpses of last season’s form in the past month, but yesterday he was again not at his best and fingers will rightly be pointed at him for the goal we conceded. We all know he’s got the ability, but hopefully he can re-find his form and chip in with a useful contribution throughout the rest of the season.
Giroud returned and played well, again highlighting his fine ability to hold the ball up and link the play between midfield and attack. His goal was a super finish, if a little fortunate with the bounce, and that will have done wonders for his confidence as the pressure on him as a goal scorer continues to be high.
Elsewhere, Gnabry again showed he’s not out of place in our starting eleven and although he didn’t have as great an impact as he did against Sp*rs, he proved his worth and will certainly remain involved in the second half of the season. Ozil drifted in and out of the game as he always does with some moments of magic, including the beautiful pass releasing Monreal for our opener, but plenty of sloppiness too.
It was also great to see Oxlade-Chamberlain back in the side; a real talent and another unfortunate sufferer of a bad early career injury. It’s tough to expect too much of him having been out for so long, but with Walcott out and a World Cup in the summer, there’s huge potential for The Ox to get back to full fitness and stake a claim for a regular starting birth for Club and country.
It was a grind but ultimately we got there in the end and we again showed our defensive strength and spirit to see out a tricky and narrow away victory, something we’ve seen a lot of from this Arsenal side over the past twelve months.
It keeps us at the top of the League and will ensure the belief in the squad remains such that we can stay there. But it’s important we don’t get too carried away and, even though it’s an old sporting cliché, take only one game at a time.
We’re at the beginning of a series of very winnable League fixtures now so let’s hope that belief and spirit remains and that we take it into Saturday’s game against Fulham, who are the next box that we need to tick in our quest for silverware this season.