Arsenal show style and steel to go back on top

Posted by John Brewin

Five months ago, Aston Villa were the opening-day opponents who had Arsenal fans calling for the ax to fall on Arsene Wenger.

A penny for their thoughts now. So much for the end of empire, that August afternoon might one day be seen as the moment that a new Arsenal began.

This most recent 2-1 victory at Villa Park in the return fixture was a marriage of class and character. Arsenal dominated, only to be pegged back, but then recovered their footing with notable determination. Previous Wenger teams might have folded under the late onslaught that followed Christian Benteke’s goal.

As Arsenal’s season turns for home, they lead the title race, holding their own against the far greater riches of Chelsea and Manchester City. Wenger’s team responded to their rivals’ weekend victories with one of their own.

“There’s a bit more pressure when you play the last,” said a relieved Wenger afterwards. “You can only give one answer and that is to win the game.”

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Wenger’s continued faith in his players, who play as if they have the confidence of their manager, is paying off, and patience is one of their virtues, too.

Having dominated the first half hour yet actually created little in the way of chances, they scored a quickfire pair of goals through Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud that ultimately took the game beyond the hosts.

Perhaps injuries may yet prove a hand brake to Arsenal’s eventual success. Here, Nacho Monreal suffered a suspected broken metatarsal after a fine last-ditch tackle from Ron Vlaar caught the Spaniard on the top of his foot, while Tomas Rosicky may have suffered a broken nose in a clash with Gabby Agbonlahor.

Meanwhile, Theo Walcott’s season was ended last week just as he had reasserted his importance, while Giroud has long been operating in the “red zone” that Wenger always fears -- the theory being that overworked players become more susceptible to injury.

Wilshere began his match in his customary floored position after going down under a heavy challenge from Karim El Ahmadi and yet, in scoring their goals, both he and Giroud showed the gossamer, confident touch of players at their peak.

Wilshere did a more than passable impression of another absentee, Aaron Ramsey, in the 60 seconds between the 34th and 35th minutes, putting Villa to the sword first by converting a Monreal pass from an overlap that had been set up by Mesut Ozil, and then by playing in Giroud for a composed finish.

“He has found his change of pace back,” said Wenger of the English midfielder. “His game is about that. He is not only a passer, he is a guy who is incisive with the ball. You see that he's coming back to his best.”

There are also ready replacements for Walcott. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was made to wait to return from his own knee injury until the 86th minute, with Serge Gnabry instead given a chance.

The German teenager, not dissimilar in build to “the Ox,” is one of those jewels that Wenger turns to. Once a young Arsenal player is ready, there is no time like the present, no matter how callow he may be. Gnabry is raw, but already troublesome for opponents.

Paul Lambert’s tactics invited Arsenal on. Three centre-backs were initially fielded, flanked by full-backs for whom overlapping would form no part of their night’s work.

It was not until the 12th minute that the ball was in the Gunners’ half, and that was from a throw-in conceded after a long Brad Guzan punt. That Fabian Delph found space to shoot was a warning sign, but hardly much of one.

Arsenal’s pounding continued. Nathan Baker was smashed full in the face at point-blank range by a Gnabry shot; the poleaxed central defender would leave the field in an oxygen mask after nearly 10 minutes of treatment.

So sparse are Lambert’s resources that he had rejig to a 4-4-2 formation. Perhaps the evening’s best news for the Villa camp was that Baker was declared “okay but groggy” by his manager. It had looked far more serious than that when he was down.

Until Villa’s late surge, inspired by Benteke’s goal in 76th minute, Arsenal played like the home team; they have a superb away record in the past year and this was to be their eighth win in 11 on the road this campaign.

Villa, meanwhile, looked accepting of the role of hopeful visitors. Their problems derive from a squad that is little stronger than last season’s, and that was a group who only saved themselves from relegation in the final weeks.

Home fans are as glum as Lambert’s usual demeanour, and with cut-price signings the only possible additions in January -- Lambert did not deny afterwards that Grant Holt might be brought in on loan from Wigan -- the outlook hardly looks much brighter.

Benteke, whose 19 goals guided Villa to safety last term, is suffering a chronic case of “second-season-itis.” In this game, he idled without menace, while also seeming to have lost the spatial awareness to judge a crossed ball.

It probably does not hearten Lambert and his owner, Randy Lerner, that he could have been cashed in for north of 20 million pounds last summer.

Yet a Matt Lowton cross that he could not miss suddenly revived the Belgian. After 14 hours and 45 minutes of playing and four months of real time -- dating back to September 14 -- without a goal, Benteke looked like the marauder of a year ago; confidence flushed through him.

“We certainly gave them a fright. It was this time last year that he started to kick in,” said Lambert of his key man.

On the touchline, Wenger began to show the exasperation so familiar in Arsenal’s years of falter.

“Maybe we were a bit too cautious to keep the 2-0,” he suggested. “Our defenders kept us in the game.”

Benteke headed straight at Wojciech Szczesny and Per Mertesacker desperately cleared another inviting Lowton cross while the Villa striker lurked with intent.

Beyond those moments of tension, Villa’s 15-minute revival was not nearly enough to stop Arsenal cresting back to the top.

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