Arsenal went back to the top of the league after surviving a late onslaught from Villa to claim all three points in what was an unnecessarily tense finish.
After Wenger’s side had scored twice in a minute in the first half, the nervy ending looked as likely as a Spurs title win. But the Gunners slipped into complacency at halftime and were bordering on being comatose when Benteke’s header out of nothing forced them into a rearguard action for the last 20 minutes.
Those two first half goals were deserved on the balance of play, as we’d dominated possession without ever really threatening the Villa goal. There wasn’t enough tempo to our attacks and I lost count of the number of times Cazorla, Ozil etc dribbled forward five yards, stopped, dribbled backwards a couple of yards and passed sideways. We were not penetrative at all and it took the first incisive pass of the match from Ozil to set up the breakthrough. Monreal latched onto the German’s brilliant pass inside the full back and fed Wilshere for a smartly taken goal into the corner.
Immediately from the restart we pressed the shaken Villa defence. Wilshere, buoyed by his strike and with his adrenaline pumping, won the ball before lofting it onto Giroud’s foot and the striker finished well. In truth that was one of the last times we closed down with any sort of desire as we then eased off considerably, seemingly convinced that the game was won.
Now I have praised Arsenal’s new found maturity in trying to protect their leads this season. In previous years we’d play the same way when 2-0 up as we did when it was 0-0. This naive approach lead to blowing a 4-0 lead at Newcastle, a 4-2 lead at home to Spurs with a minute to go and turning a 2-0 halftime lead over Spurs into a 3-2 defeat at the Emirates (those are just the ones off the top of my head, I’m sure there are many more). So it’s good we’ve managed to stop throwing away leads by being more cautious and pragmatic once we’re ahead.
But tonight I thought we overdid it.
We didn’t look interested in getting another goal after the break and practically handed the initiative to Villa, which they took with glee and almost rescued an undeserved point. A third goal would’ve killed them off but we retreated so much that we ended up having 8 goal attempts to their 11. We really need to work at finding the right balance between safeguarding a lead and continuing to threaten the opposition’s goal.
As it was Benteke could’ve equalised first when Mertesacker nicked the ball off his head at the back post and then in the last minute when he sent a free header straight at Szczesny from eight yards.
Now I’m very aware this is a pretty negative report considering we won, but I’m worried at the number of times we have been ‘winning ugly’ recently. There are only so many times you’re supposed to do that in a season, yet our last four league wins have all come as we played well below our best. Winning ugly is unsustainable in the long run — they’re supposed to be occasional victories, not the norm and I fear for our long-term title chances when I see us playing consistently below par. Apart from the Spurs cup win last week, the last time we played really well was at Cardiff back in November. We need to pick it up again and find our early season form.
On the plus side we looked very solid at the back again, apart from their goal which seemed to catch Mertesacker by surprise as he wasn’t expecting Cazorla to give the ball away so carelessly. But generally the BFG and Koscielny were immense again, and I’m much more comfortable with Flamini in the team as he’s a proper defensive midfielder, unlike Arteta who’s more of a deep lying playmaker.
Finally, a word on Agbonlahor, a nasty little shit who I’ve always disliked. Tonight he broke Rosicky’s nose with a sly leading forearm and despite it hardly drawing comment from Sky, he knew exactly what he was doing. Nobody will get on his back for that, but Theo has some good-humoured banter with some neanderthal Spurs fans and the media make a massive deal out of it. Typical.
Anyway, a win is a win but improvement is necessary if we’re to stay in the title race. We really missed the dynamism and directness of Theo so fingers crossed the Ox or Gnabry (who was ok but nothing special tonight) can fill his shoes because we looked very pedestrian without him.
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