Gunners back to top of table after seeing off Aston Villa
Aston Villa were on the wrong end of a demoralising game of keep-ball
Olivier Giroud shoots past Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan to score Arsenal’s second goal at Villa Park last night. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Arsenal are back on top of the Premier League, taking in the view and showing no signs of a side that is going to wilt any time soon. Arsene Wenger’s team had to survive some anxious moments during the final exchanges but they were considerably the better team overall and should really have made their latest win a lot easier for themselves.
They did the damage with goals from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud in the space of 59 seconds in the first half and, after that, it had looked like being a freewheeling win until Christian Benteke’s 76th-minute header. It was Benteke’s first goal since September, and only the eighth Villa have scored at home all season, and it meant a frenetic finale to a match that Arsenal had hitherto dominated.
Paul Lambert’s side gave everything in those moments but ultimately it was a deception to how the rest of the game had been played.
For long spells, Villa had the air of a side that had lost a significant amount of self-belief. Arsenal, with more away points than any other Premier League team in 2013, quickly settled into their possession game. It was rare to see an away side with so much control of the ball, working their triangular patterns and trying to find the gaps in the opposition defence.
Villa were on the wrong end of a demoralising game of keep-ball and there was something devastating about that period before half-time when Wenger’s players suddenly turned that superiority into the quick one-two of goals.
The paradox was that Villa, with so little of the ball, could reflect on a couple of decent opportunities of their own before that point. Unfortunately for them, Karim El Ahmadi could not hit the target on either occasion and the old rampaging figure of Christian Benteke is now strolling through matches.
Their entire system was devised to a counter-attacking style, hoping for the best on the break. Yet Arsenal, it quickly became apparent, are not the soft touch that capitulated to these opponents on the opening weekend of the season.
The first goal was typical of Arsenal, classy in its creation and clinical in its execution. Mesut Ozil’s pass for Nacho Monreal, overlapping on the left, was beautifully weighted. Monreal had the time and space to pick out Wilshere’s run and the England midfielder took one touch to control the pass before angling his shot past Brad Guzan all in one movement.
For all of Arsenal’s possession, it was actually one of the first times the home side had looked vulnerable. Yet what followed, for Villa, was a crushing setback. From the kick-off, the ball found its way to Fabian Delph inside his own half.
His poor touch allowed Wilshere to pinch the ball and quickly play it long, from right to left, into Giroud’s path. The striker had Ron Vlaar and Matthew Lowton in close proximity but managed to elude them both before cracking another emphatic finish into the same corner Wilshere had chosen.
Villa were hanging on for the remainder of the half and there were also the first signs of dissent from the home supporters when they broke forward, just before the interval, but only three players crossed the half-way line and were quickly crowded out.
Lambert had lost Nathan Baker to concussion, having taken a shot from Serge Gnabry flush in the face, and a team with Villa’s limitations must have realised at half-time the situation was already hopeless.
For the most part, Villa Park did not turn on the home team during the more difficult moments. There were, however, exaggerated cheers when El Ahmadi was substituted shortly before Benteke, completely out of the blue, changed the complexion of the game. Ozil, of all people, was guilty of some wretched carelessness to lose the ball inside his own half. Lowton immediately whipped the ball into the penalty area and Benteke was stoopping at the far post to head beyond Wojciech Szczesny.
These were moments that told us a lot about Arsenal’s durability. Perhaps a little complacency had set in before that goal, understandably so given the disparity between the teams. At half-time, the stadium announcer had informed the crowd the competition prize was a season-ticket for the next five years – and it says everything that the Holte End promptly booed.
Yet, suddenly, Villa were pouring forward in search of a late equaliser and their opponents, for the first time, were beginning to look a little ragged. Yet Arsenal held out and, all the while, there was the sense of a team that was capable of playing a level or two higher.