Le Boss said afterwards that this performance was "brilliant and resilient". What I think he meant to say was "brilliant, then resilient" as this was the most contrasting match I have seen us play in a long time. The phrase ‘a game of two halves’ was invented for games like this as we dominated the first-half but then hung on for dear life after the break. In the end though, our combination of brilliance and resilience was just a little too much for a decent Aston Villa side.
As expected, Wenger made wholesale changes to the scratch side that lost away in Seville. In came experienced head such as Gallas, Flamini, Rosicky and Adebayor for the likes of Senderos, Traore, Hoyte, Denilson and Bendtner. Also making their way back to the team were Clichy and Hleb who had recovered sufficiently from injury, but Cesc stayed at home. As half-expected these days away from home, we started off in a 4-5-1 formation, but given the movement of our midfield it was always going to be a very fluid five-man midfield. Following on from the loss against Sevilla – the first in 29 games – many had speculated whether The Arsenal would capitulate a la their 2002 and 2004 predecessors, who after having lost long unbeaten runs went on a string of bad results which ultimately cost them the title. A game away to an in-form Villa side would not be high on many Gooner’s lists of easy games to get things back on track either.
The first effort on goal came courtesy of the away side as Emmanuel Eboue had a low drive that was tipped around the post. The returning Alex Hleb was in the thick of the action and could have had a goal himself early on but was instead of electing to shoot with his left he kept the move going one more and eventually Rosicky’s shot ended up nearer the corner flag than the goal. Hleb was then played in by Flamini and seemed to be one-on-one with Carson but again elected to delay his shot and the danger was cleared.
We were bossing things early on and Hleb was particularly prominent – with Cesc out, his contribution would be vital and he lived up to the billing. So when Villa’s goal came on the quarter hour it was a bit of a sucker punch. Flamini misplaced a pass on the halfway line and the Villa midfield sent John Carew – he who has shattered Arsenal’s European dreams twice in the past – racing down the outside left channel. The tall Norwegian’s low cross was first deflected by Toure causing it to loop into the air, and then instinctively flicked on by Willy Gallas thus taking it away from Clichy at the back post and into the path of Gardner, who wasn’t going to miss from there. I think Almunia got a finger to it but from that range he was helpless.
So a goal down against the run of play and you could feel journalists’ knives sharpening. Thankfully the players are not a fickle bunch and stuck to what they know best – Wengerball. Five minutes after the goal we manufactured a splendid move which resulted in Ade and Flamini playing a one-two on the edge of Villa’s box and Ade’s shot being blocked. With the ease in which we were cutting through them, I sensed that they were not defensively watertight and that the equalizer would come sooner or later. And it did. Eboue was stuck on the right touchline with two men on him. He had nothing to do and nowhere to go until Ade left his central station and came out to help his mate. The pair manufactured another sublime one-two which sent Eboue racing to the right byline, and although his cross was behind Rosicky, the Little Mozart got a touch on it to divert it towards the edge of the area, where Mathieu Gerrard was steaming in a smashed it home low and hard with his left foot. Alex Hleb was lurking around the same position but with the Flamster bulldozing into the box he did well to leave it. In fact Flamini – who was revelling in the license to roam provided by Cesc’s absence – could have added two more in the following ten minutes. The first one came at the end of yet another sumptuous passing move as Hleb played him in. Sacrificing power for placement, his sidefooted effort was destined to nestle in the bottom corner but was blocked by a Villa defender. The second one was another piledriver, this time on his right peg that went narrowly over. In between these efforts Rosicky tried to get in on the act too but his attempt from the left of the box was too straight to trouble the keeper. It came as a result of yet another intricate yet pacy Wengerball move; had it been a few yards either side of Carson then it could have been heading for the top corner.
With the pressure mounting, you sensed a second was coming. It is very important for The Arsenal to score when bossing the game, especially away from home. Again the goal came from our right side and an exchange of passes between ‘Hleboue’ resulted in Sagna floating his cross into the centre. For once we had a striker there to attack the ball, and Ade veritably hung in the air for two seconds as he towered above two Villa defenders to plant his header beyond the reach of the flailing Carson. So not only can we score spectacular goals but we can score simple ones too. This was out straight of the Didier Drogba playbook. A quick word about the evolution of our play into a right-sided team, because for years all our inventive attacking play came down the left with Messrs Henry, Pires and Cashley Hole. On the opposite flank Lauren and Ljungberg were toothless in comparison. How that has changed, for nowadays most of our goals (unless they are counter-attacks) come from the right-wing. Two goals here against Villa, Willy’s opener last week against Wigan and Cesc’s goal against the Mancs are recent examples. That’s not to say that the left-side is useless these days but with Rosicky coming off his wing a lot, the majority of Gael’s good attacking play comes when he dribbles deep from his own half.
The remainder of the half was keep ball from Arsenal. Villa had simply been overrun and were lucky to be only a goal behind. Just before the start of the second period, the pundit I was listening felt that Arsenal would cruise to victory like we did against Reading, but he couldn’t have got it more wrong…
We were absolutely pissed on in that second 45. The last time I remember seeing such an onslaught like that was probably the FA Cup final in 2005 against the Mancs. Villa were especially creative from the flanks, any time Ashley Young got the ball he was a danger in terms of dribbling and crossing. No wonder Arsene was rumoured to be looking at him last season. Such was his elusiveness down the left that Villa won a fair few free-kicks from that side – one which resulted in Captain Willy getting stupidly booked for mouthing off at the ref. The free-kick was punched away by Almunia but only to Villa’s right-wing where another cross came and caused Arsenal hearts to leap into mouths. Carnage ensued as the cross was missed by the defence at the back post and fell to Carew. He dummied Kolo but couldn’t get enough purchase on his shot, which then trickled to Laursen six-yards but he somehow slammed it wide. Phew.
Any chance we had of regaining control of the game came to an end on the hour when Alex Hleb was cynically, cuntishly brought down by that prick John Carew. It was the worst of challenges, not mistimed or anything like because the ball had gone ages ago, but was a horrible rake down the back of Alex’s leg. It was disgrace, plain and simple, and Alex never recovered and was replaced by Theo soon thereafter. And to think that it only warranted a booking, the same punishment that Willy got moments earlier for ‘hurting the referee’s feelings’. What bollocks. That tackle (if you can call it that) was dangerous and pre-meditated, and anyway I thought the tackle from behind had been outlawed??? Should have been a red.
With Hleb off the pitch and Carew still on, you knew that he would be in the midst of the action. And he was only five minutes later as Ashley Young (who else?) whipped in a delightful cross that Carew rose to meet. His glancing header was nearly perfect but not quite as it ricocheted off the bar with Manuel beaten all ends up. The rebound was scrambled away by the defence but that was a close shave. Gooners would have been even more angry had the ball been a few inches lower, that bastard Carew didn’t deserve the goal after ending Hleb’s game. And yes I admit I do harbour previous ill-feeling towards him as I vividly remember him getting in front of the creaking Tony Adams to glance on past the also creaking Dave Seaman as we were on the verge of the Champions League semis in 2001, and for knocking us out at the second group stage in 2003.
The weather had deteriorated and Villa were at their most threatening in the middle of the half, but apart from Laursen’s miss and Carew’s affinity for the woodwork they did not create many clear-cut chances. They kept knocking on Arsenal’s door with an aerial bombardment into our box, but by hook or by crook The Arsenal stood firm…just.
On 70 minutes Rosicky made way for Gilberto, who could have felt aggrieved that he hadn’t started the game ahead of Diarra. His introduction was exactly what we needed at the time: an old head to calm the young tyros down, and some extra height to deal with Carew too. For the rest of the game Villa huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow the house down, most of their efforts were restricted to shots from range from Berger and Maloney. Ashley Young tarnished his performance with a blatant dive in our box which resulted in a booking for the kid. What’s that I hear? An English player diving? Well I never! Funny how it got no mention whatsoever on Match of the Day…had it been an Arsenal foreigner then you can imagine the bile coming from the press. Villa ran out of steam towards the end and we were relatively comfortable, even managing an attack of our own as Diarra blazed over from 20-yards. But between 50 and 70 minutes we were given an almighty examination of our credentials.
To be fair to Villa they probably deserved a point on their second-half showing. The neutral would definitely feel sorry for them, but bollocks to that we’re not neutral here, so if Villa deserved a point but didn’t get one then boo-freakin’-hoo. I especially begrudge them the draw because of Carew’s hatchet job on Hleb. The first I heard was that it was a gashed ankle but now the word "Achilles" is being flung about, which doesn’t bode well. In all honesty though Villa did play well in the second period and hopefully they can test our rivals similarly. I think the high level of their performance is testament to ours too. They threw the kitchen sink at us but could not grab the equaliser, which says loads about our defensive resilience and cojones.
Onto the player performances, I thought that the keeper and defence did well despite losing a few aerial battles with Carew. Agbonlahor was pretty quiet and although Young was good, I can’t remember him skinning Sagna at all, most of his positive play came from the quality of his crosses. The midfield was short in terms of height but a giant in terms of heart, and there was no lack of nous either. The way Rosicky, Hleb, Flamini, Diarra and Eboue knocked the ball about and kept possession in the tightest of spaces was excellent. Special mention for Flamini – this time six months ago who would have thought that he’d be in the team, let alone taking up the mantle of attacking midfielder in Cesc’s absence? I also liked how Diarra fit in the team’s style of play so seamlessly. One particular aspect of his play that I rate very highly is his ability to get his body in between his marker and the ball. In fact our first goal came as a result of such play as he managed to shield the ball from his man and then showed good pace to break through the midfield. However he – and Flamini too – did give the ball away once or twice with some sloppy square passes, so there is always room for improvement. Up-front Ade was not at his best as he too gifted possession back from time to time. But crucially he was there to head in the winning goal, so fair play to him. He also linked up well with Eboue to create the first goal.
Top Gun goes to the returning Alex Hleb, who, for the sixty minutes he was on the pitch, played like a genius. He controlled the tempo of the play and linked things in the hole. I think one of the things I learnt from this game was that, as long as two from Hleb, Cesc and Rosicky are on the pitch, we can kill teams with our passing as all three of them are on the same wavelength. If there is only one of them on the pitch (like last week against Wigan or midweek at Sevilla) then it becomes more difficult for us to break teams down through the middle. Hopefully Hleb’s injury is not too serious, although I can’t see him making Wednesday night against Newcastle, even if it’s just to protect him. Cesc may be back for that, so at least we’ll have two of the aforementioned three on the pitch.
These tests that the press keep inventing for us, we keep passing. Now we’ve shown that we can win in style, come from behind to salvage a result, keep our patience to score late and as we exhibited here, win despite being on the back foot. We won ugly, and it was a thing of beauty. Who would have thought that brilliance combined with resilience would simultaneously result in ugly and beauty?