Arsenal held off a late fight back from Aston Villa to win 2-1 at Villa Park on Monday and move back to the top of the Premier League table.
For more than an hour it looked like being a most comfortable evening for an Arsenal side striving to overturn their defeat to the same opponents on the opening day of the season. While far from their best, two moments of quality in the space of as many first-half minutes leading to goals from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud had Arsenal firmly in control.
Villa, who lost Nathan Baker to a nasty concussion early on, had offered precious little in the opening half to get their fans excited in the way manager Paul Lambert had urged leading up to the match. That appeared to lull Arsenal into a false sense of security and Villa were much improved after the break. There still appeared little danger for the visitors until some slackness in midfield allowed Christian Benteke to head home with 14 minutes remaining. What followed was a far nervier finish than could have been envisaged. Arsenal were left mightily relived to hang on as Benteke missed a glorious chance for an equalizer in the 90th minute.
Arsene Wenger will doubtless have strong words to his players about the way in which they took their foot off the gas late on. Yet, he will be pleased with the resilience shown by his team to see out the win to claim another important three points that means they continue to set the pace.
While Arsenal’s record against the Premier League’s powerhouse clubs has again not been great this season, they may not need to beat their chief rivals for the championship if they continue to be so efficient in knocking off the challenge provided by everyone else. In their efforts to do just that, Arsenal were boosted by the return from injury of Alex Oxalde-Chamberlain as a late substitute, but will have concern about a possible broken nose for Tomas Rosicky, while Nacho Monreal will be examined for a potential broken metatarsal.
Villa began with three at the back and a packed five-man midfield, looking to limit Arsenal’s strength going through the middle. But it left the hosts short handed out wide, something that Arsenal exploited with two dangerous crosses rom Bacary Sagna early on. Giroud was unable to take advantage, glancing a header wide from the first before being prevented from getting to the second by Ron Vlaar.
Villa’s tactics, along with the game, was disrupted when Baker was poleaxed by a Serge Gnabry shot to his head. The break in play lasted for seven minutes as Baker was treated for what turned out to be a mild concussion. When play restarted, Lambert was forced to switch his shape with no natural replacement for central defender Baker on the bench. Instead, Leandro Bacuna came on as Villa switched to a 4-4-2 formation.
Their game plan didn’t alter, however. They continued to passively sit back and play hopefully and directly up to Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor when they did get possession. Not a single shot on target was produced in the opening half, with half-chances spurned by Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi the closest they came.
Villa’s midfield remained narrow, too, and it was that which Arsenal exposed once more to get the opening goal in the 34th minute. Right-back Matthew Lowton was left defending two men and allowed Nacho Monreal to run off and inside of him and receive Mesut Ozil’s pass inside. The full-back’s pull-back found Wilshre in space and the midfield took the ball perfectly into his path before sweeping a shot past Brad Guzan.
With Villa still recovering and Arsenal with their tails up, a second goal came immediately. Wilshere was again involved, this time pressing and winning the ball inside the opposition half and instantly looking up and picking out Giroud in the box with a pin-point chipped pass. The striker’s first touch was sublime, the second and third fortunate and the fourth a clinical shot into the far corner on his left side.
It didn’t take much, but Villa started the second half with more bite and purpose and even had a first shot on target through Bacuna, although it only mildly warmed Wojciech Szczesny’s hands.
Arsenal had moved into an increasingly relaxed mindset, with only a side-footed effort wide from Giroud enlivening their efforts. That opened the door for their opponents and, after Benteke provided a hint that he was in the mood to end a goal drought that extended back to September with a volley wide, the Belgian pulled his side right back into the match.
Cazorla summed up Arsenal’s easing off with a sloppy pass straight to Lowton inside his own half. From there it was all about Lowton’s superb cross, which curled in between Arsenal’s defense and goalkeeper giving Benteke the chance to charge in and met the ball with a flying header into the net. Suddenly, Villa Park was awakened and their team thrived on the sudden energy.
That same formula could and should have led to a dramatic finale. This time, though, from another excellent Lowton cross, Benteke’s header from eight yards out was straight at Szczesny. While Arsenal march on, despite finishing without any tangible reward, Villa and Benteke showed enough late on to potentially provide a springboard going forward.