Saturday 24 February 2018

Quick-fire Gunners return to top of Premier League

Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2

Oliver Giroud scores Arsenal's second goal. Photo: Getty Images
Oliver Giroud scores Arsenal's second goal. Photo: Getty Images
Tomas Rosicky injured his nose

Henry Winter

Inspired by Jack Wilshere, Arsenal climbed back up to the summit of the Premier League but they suffered a real scare here.

Leading through goals from Wilshere and Olivier Giroud, they became complacent and sloppy, allowing an initially subdued Villa back into the game with Christian Benteke's header.

Arsenal held on, demonstrating resilience late on but the thought remained over why Villa did not start with the same conviction as they finished.

Helped by the substitute Andreas Weimann, Villa were terrific late on, pouring forward, Matthew Lowton delivering some good crosses. The Holte End screamed itself hoarse but the real roar came from the Arsenal fans at the final whistle.

Moments before kick-off, the Arsenal fans had chanted Wilshere's name and he turned and calmly gave them a thumbs-up. He was in the mood for this, enjoying his central station which allowed him to attack while Mathieu Flamini stayed behind to shield the back-four. Wilshere's movement provided the defining moments of the first half, scoring the first and creating the second for Giroud.


Even before Arsenal scored, Villa had looked nervous, Karim El Ahmadi fouling Wilshere. Bacary Sagna's crosses caused problems, the second of a string of deliveries bringing a header wide from Giroud.

Until Nathan Baker left with mild concussion, Villa had five at the back, two full-backs in Lowton and Antonio Luna, keeping an eye on Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry respectively.

Three centre-halves, Ron Vlaar, Baker and Ciaran Clark, looked to deal with Giroud and Mesut Ozil who was dropping off. Paul Lambert had fielded three in the middle, El Ahmadi, Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph, who were often looking over their shoulder, checking on Ozil's movement and caught out by Wilshere's runs.

Villa's tactics meant that Gabby Agbonlahor, who was in the hole, and Christian Benteke, were occasionally isolated.

They did trouble Arsenal's goal after 11 minutes. Benteke ran towards the box, the ball rebounding off him and Laurent Koscielny towards Delph, who controlled the ball but dragged his left-footed shot wide.

It was all a contrast to the opening day of the season when Villa prevailed at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal have been stiffened by Flamini and given threads of silk by Ozil, who combined beautifully with Giroud after 11 minutes. It was all fairly relaxed with Arsenal fans and Wojciech Szczesny exchanging greetings.

The game was held up for six minutes after Gnabry's left-footed shot hammered into the head of the stooping Baker, who was flattened by the impact, suffering mild concussion. He was eventually carried away on a stretcher as fans stood in sympathetic applause.

Leandro Bacuna came on in right midfield as Lambert switched to 4-4-2. Villa briefly looked better with the new formation, more assertive, more linked between back and front. El Ahmadi shot over. Nacho Monreal brought down Agbonlahor, who was racing down the right, but the Arsenal left-back's next involvement was outstanding as the visitors seized control.

After 34 minutes, Monreal combined with Ozil, who turned and played a perfect pass behind the sluggish Lowton for the full-back to run on to. The Spaniard cut the ball back for Wilshere to control the ball, and then shoot past Brad Guzan. Wilshere celebrated by shaping his fingers into an "A", a salute to his son Archie.

Within 59 seconds, and 17 seconds from the restart, Arsenal doubled their lead. Delph lost the ball in midfield, Wilshere gratefully accepted the gift and swept a pass to Giroud, who made no mistake with an angled finish. It was all over in seconds. It looked all over for Villa.

Arsenal were totally in charge. Flamini easily picked off an Agbonlahor cross. Cazorla drilled a sumptuous pass from right to left to Monreal. Even Per Mertesacker joined in one attack, laying the ball off on the edge of the Villa area. Wilshere was everywhere, blocking an El Ahmadi shot and then playing a neat back-heel.

Villa departed to a flurry of boos at the break which then redoubled when the announcer offered a prize for the half-time fans' shoot-out as a "season ticket for five years". The Holte End was getting frustrated, watching Benteke labour upfront and the defence caught out.

Villa started the second period brightly, forcing a corner which Szczesny punched out and then Bacuna fired a low shot collected by the Arsenal 'keeper. Villa appealed for a penalty when Benteke and Koscielny engaged in some grappling on the edge of the Arsenal box but Neil Swarbrick rightly waved play on. Wilshere fouled Agbonlahor, and Bacuna took the free-kick, but it whistled harmlessly into the wall.

Arsenal broke just before the hour, Monreal running into the area from the left before stopped by a forceful, totally legitimate tackle from Vlaar. Monreal carried on for a while before limping off and being replaced by Kieran Gibbs. Arsenal looked for a third, Cazorla's low shot held by Guzan.

Until Benteke stooped to score, Arsenal remained in control as Villa fans stayed largely silent. There was little to lift their spirits on the pitch. El Ahmadi laid the ball off to Westwood, whose shot flew straight at Szczesny. There was a lack of invention to Lambert's side, something he wants to rectify with the recruitment of Wes Hoolahan from Norwich City. The depth of Wenger's creative options was shown when Tomas Rosicky, who has been in such good form this season, replaced Gnabry, who departed to a standing ovation from the Arsenal fans.

Wilshere continued to provide some fine touches in front of the 36,097 crowd. One of his passes released Gibbs, whose cutback was struck wide by Giroud.

Lambert attempted to bring some life to his attack, sending on Weimann. Villa perked up, helped by some surprisingly sloppy possession by Arsenal. Benteke shot wide, then gave Villa hope by diving in at the far-post to head in Lowton's excellent cross for his first goal since September.

Rosicky did not last long, injuring his nose and being replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Villa still threatened an equalizer. Lowton whipped in another cross from the right but Mertesacker showed all his positional strength and experience to head this one out. Wilshere tore into a challenge on Bacuna, getting booked.

Arsenal almost stilled their nerves with a shot from Cazorla saved by Guzan but the final whistle saw them top. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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