Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2 match report: Jack Wilshere impresses as Gunners survive late scare inspired by Christian Benteke
Two goals in two first-half minutes by Wilshere and Giroud see visitors cruising, before Benteke strike sets up tense finish
Back at the top of the Premier League again this morning, Arsène Wenger’s team have not yet shaken off an old habit that dictates that when victory looks assured they must then conspire to make very hard work of it.
At times Arsenal were so comfortably in control of the game that one wondered whether Aston Villa would ever be permitted to take control of the ball again. Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud gave them a two-goal lead within the space of a minute and in that moment Paul Lambert looked like a manager who would have happily shaken hands with Wenger and taken the result.
From a position of supremacy, by the end Arsenal were clinging on as Villa came back into the game with a spirit that looked frankly absent in a first half which ended with the home crowd booing them off. Where previously Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini had commanded the game, it fell to Per Mertesacker, his team’s outstanding player, to head away a sequence of balls pumped into the area.
Christian Benteke turned up to break a goalscoring duck that stretched back to September and a degree of bad feeling crept into a game that had once been so one-sided you wondered if Villa would emerge intact. Yet, one can only admire the resilience of an Arsenal team that, having let their opponents out from under their heel, had the strength to keep them at bay in those closing stages.
At the end of the game, it was the yellow shirts of Arsenal who went over to their supporters to celebrate a return to the top of the Premier League. On this day last year, they were 21 points behind the then leaders Manchester United. Now they find themselves one point clear of second-placed Manchester City and capable, when the mood takes them, of playing with a confidence that has been absent for so long.
There is a fight in them too, with Wilshere in particular prepared to walk a very fine line. He celebrated a well-taken goal with a tribute to his son Archie and by the end he was tearing into the kind of challenges that one imagines the Arsenal bench watch through their fingers. There was a return from injury for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a late substitute, but Tomas Rosicky was forced to come on and then off again with a badly cut nose.
If it was not enough that rings were being run around Villa by the end of the first half, the fourth official held up the board to announce eight minutes of injury-time when all the home team wanted to do was disappear down the tunnel.
Even at two-goals down, it was not like they were seeking to squeeze every last moment out of the game to try and get back in it. What Lambert’s team needed at that point was a breather – a breather from a whirlwind of Arsenal passing that the home side observed largely as spectators.
If it could go wrong before the break, then it largely did for Villa. Nathan Baker copped a ball in the face from Serge Gnabry’s shot on 15 minutes and stayed down for six minutes for treatment. He was eventually carted off in a neck brace with oxygen being applied. The diagnosis was mild concussion. Back on the pitch, Lambert prescribed a switch from five at the back to four.
His team held out for another 14 minutes until Mesut Ozil played in Nacho Monreal down the left wing and he cut the ball back nicely for Wilshere, arriving inside the area. It took one brush of his left foot to move the ball into a shooting position and another to swipe it past Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.
Within a minute, Villa had conceded again. There were 17 seconds between Wilshere’s goal hitting the net and Giroud adding the second. This time it started with Matt Lowton’s ball inside to Fabian Delph, whereupon the Villa midfielder lost control. Wilshere spirited the ball away and with his left foot picked out Giroud’s run between the Villa defenders. He took a touch and then finished from close range.
Poor old Lambert had seen his plans go up in smoke and there was precious little that could be down about it. There were times in the first half when it was hard to remember when Villa last touched the ball. They were fortunate that Arsenal did not hurt them more often, although it felt that they could at any time.
There was half a chance for Delph on 13 minutes when Benteke’s persistence paid off in winning the ball and the Englishman snatched at his shot.
For all their supremacy in the first half, Arsenal failed to bury an opponent that, for all the pessimism in the stadium, refused to give up the ghost. Villa carved out their first chance on 65 minutes when Leandro Bacuna, on for Baker, hit a shot straight at Wojciech Szczesny. Andreas Wiemann’s introduction made a difference and eventually the breakthrough came.
Santi Cazorla dawdled in possession of the ball on the left side and Lowton stole it away from him rather as Wilshere had done with Delph in the first half. The Villa right-back hit a beautiful out-swinger at the back post which eluded the Arsenal defence, bounced once and was headed in by Benteke for his first goal in four months.
At half-time the mood inside the stadium had been so grim that a competition to win a season ticket for five years had been greeted with a low rumble of booing by the home support. But they recognised the fight in their side in the closing stages and the tiredness creeping into Arsenal legs.
Wenger had been forced to bring on Kieran Gibbs for Monreal, who had never recovered from a marvellous robust tackle by Ron Vlaar when the Spanish full-back was shaping to shoot. Rosicky came on for Gnabry and had his nose split in a tangle with Gabriel Agbonlahor. After a change of shirt because of blood everywhere, Rosicky had to come off again
Aside from a late header from Benteke that would have been disallowed for a foul in the build-up, Villa failed to carve open the chance that might have seen them take a point to go with the three they took from the Emirates on the first day of the season. This season, Arsenal do not crumble so easily as those bad old days in their recent history.
Man of the match Mertesacker.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire).
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