From Vilified to Villa Pride
Clark ’51, ’70
Arsenal went top of the table on Saturday afternoon with a scintillating away win at Villa Park.
Aston Villa, unbeaten at home in the league and with results against both Chelsea and Manchester United already this season, came into this biting cold lunchtime kick-off looking for another ‘Top Four’ feather for their cap. But, with a week’s worth of ‘crisis’ column inches laid and lit beneath them, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal were in no snood to be plucked. Sorry…they were in no mood to be plucked. Right from the kick-off Arsenal set about Villa with the unmistakable energy of proud men slighted.
Cesc Fàbregas is impossible to replace ‘like for like’ and Arsenal adapted to his absence accordingly – farming his manifold responsibilities out across the midfield. Skipper for the day Tomáš Rosický shouldered the lion’s share of these with a rousing Captain’s performance. An ever-present fulcrum, always in space, he traversed the Villa ranks, as calm an architect as ever – with added punch in the tackle and verve around the box.
Arsenal conjured eight attempts on Villa’s goal in the opening 30 minutes. They weren’t there to f*ck about, and they weren’t about to die wondering.
The attacking midfield triumvirate of Nasri, Rosický and Arshavin were poised like a diamond cutting edge on a circular saw, just inches above the MDF of Aston Villa’s defence, yet; it was the solid platform of the workbench beneath that afforded them so many openings. Jack Wilshere was understated but nigh on metronomic with his quick, short passing in the centre of the pitch – and; partnering him there, Alex Song showed sublime balance in the tackle as he dispossessed all-comers with the easy subtlety and intelligent strength that leaves the Karl Henrys of this world rocking gently back-and-forth in their padded cells murmuring, “if only…”
So much of the victory today, though, must be credited to Arsenal’s two flying wing-backs. Like ‘little friendlies’ on the flanks of our unstoppable B52, not only did they shackle their respective wingers out of the game, but, by forcing the issue so high up the pitch, they won continuous and invaluable possession for their midfield to make use of. It cannot be overstated how far these two set us apart.
The pressure on Aston Villa’s goal was incessant and direct. Corner after corner was won. Broken down attacking possession was recycled and recycled again by a markedly industrious Arsenal and in the 38th minute the breakthrough came. Andrei Arshavin, pouncing on a defensive lapse, latched onto a ball over the top and hit the rockets down the left. He cut inside and danced into the box in trademark fashion. Appearing through the tundra, our very own Yuri Zhivago then fired an unstoppable, low shot beneath three despairing challenges – stunning Friedel’s left glove as it fizzed like a well primed sling-shot into the bottom corner of the net. “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
Straight from the restart it could have been two as Arshavin, undoubtedly playing the game of his season so far, sent a slide-rule through-ball bisecting two lines of Villa defence. The pass pulled up perfectly for Samir Nasri to rip through on goal and round the goalkeeper – only to hit the side netting from a tight angle.
Minutes later and Chamakh was climbing brilliantly to fire a header at goal from a pinpoint Bacary Sagna cross. Friedel parried round the post with a hair-trigger reaction save at just about point blank range but his Alamo heroics were just driftwood in the dam as an inspired Arshavin found Nasri with the resulting corner. It was teed-up straight from the training ground and the French international volleyed home viper-like from just inside the box. Hit on the bounce the ball flew in beneath the defender, whipping past the post and thumping against the back of the net.
Villa mustered a goal back after half-time, a cracking volley from Ciaran Clark, aided albeit by an offside sight-line blocker in the form of John Carew – but Arsenal weren’t in the mood for any of that and their two goal cushion was soon restored. Chamakh’s hard graft rewarded as he bravely finished a superb, flowing Arsenal passing move –Rosický with a wonderfully weighted assist to spring the trap.
Even before Ciaran Clark rallied Villa for one final Frankenstein lurch of animation with a nodded second off the underside of the crossbar, Arsenal were searching for the fourth. There is real genius on show as Nasri makes mincemeat out of Richard Dunne but the chances aren’t taken as the final ten minutes loom. Evasive manoeuvres now and Gibbs and Denilson are sent into the fray to sure-up the 3 points. Koscielny and Squillaci at times seem like a pair of twin Shaquille O’Neals in defence, and Villa just aren’t getting through – not in their house… not today.
In the final minute of the game Arsenal’s fondness for defending on the front foot proves not as green as it is cabbage looking, Jack Wilshere heading in at the back post from a calm, lofted pass from Chamakh – a final and thorough flaying of the Villa defence.
A stylish, well-deserved victory then, to make midweek’s moaning Minnies look rather foolish and reactionary. More than that though; a timely psychological re-sit of a recently failed exam, passed with flying colours.
It was once said of Hugo Meisl’s Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ of the early 1930s that, “soccer became almost an exhibition, a sort of competitive ballet, in which scoring goals was no more than the excuse for the weaving of a hundred intricate patterns.” Well, this Arsenal team has long since woven ballet with the best of them – but it’s the thirst for victory, palpable for 90 minutes on Saturday, that will lift the hearts of the red and white army today… and the same unwavering, undaunted resolve that puts us all right back in the running of a wide open title race.
As LL Cool J once so famously said; “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years”.
Enjoy your Sunday!