Cloudy skies in north London meant Mars, though closer to Earth than at any time since the age of cavemen, could not be seen as forecast last night. For a long time at Highbury the more temporal sight of the Premiership summit was also obscured. Aston Villa, their resistance graduating from dogged to enterprising, masked the target for almost an hour.
Although they were then undone by a momentary lapse in concentration, which allowed Sol Campbell to score after 57 minutes, the visitors continued to worry Arsenal until Thierry Henry added an undeserved second in injury-time. If the red planet was still out of sight the Reds were not. With Wolves restricting Manchester United to a single goal at Old Trafford Arsenal, the only other club with three victories, returned to top spot.
Since championships, as United underlined last season, are more usually won on the back of scrappy victories than glittering thrashings, this success gave Arsène Wenger as much cause for satisfaction as Sunday's dismemberment of Middlesbrough. "We showed maturity," he said. "We look better defensively than last year."
Aston Villa may have taken just one point from their opening three matches, but David O'Leary also had reason to be optimistic. Their performances have improved with every outing and only an inability to take their chances has denied them a better return.
That, though, is a failing which has bedevilled them for years. O'Leary has promised to improve their attacking potency but his decision to switch to a five-man midfield did not seem calculated to do so. Having given Ozalan Alpay a brief recall, and Juan Pablo Angel an extended one, he recalled another of Graham Taylor's exiles in Mark Kinsella. His return was prompted both by Gavin McCann's stomach upset and the formation change.
The Gunners, unsurprisingly, were again unchanged. Kolo Touré continued in central defence with Martin Keown on the bench. A permanent spot beckons for the young Ivorian and a Keown-esque double-tackle on Jlloyd Samuel and Gareth Barry after 13 minutes suggested he could have the credentials. Later, though, he was too easily beaten by Samuel enabling the full-back to release Angel in the box. The Colombian dribbled by Lauren and Campbell before rolling his shot past the far post.
This was one of several half-chances carved out by a well-organised Villa side for whom Angel led the line with intelligence and determination. Defensively, though mob-handed, they were initially less secure. In the fourth minute Robert Pires led a counterattack which progressed with Henry surging away from Mark Delaney. Somehow Thomas Sorensen and Samuel blocked his shot.
Seven minutes later Henry again escaped, breaking on to Touré's floated pass he lobbed Sorensen only for the ball to drift past the far post. When Fredrick Ljungberg took a Henry pass into his stride and chipped onto the bar three minutes later it seemed an Arsenal goal was inevitable. Villa tightened up. With the five-man midfield suffocating Arsenal's supply lines, and Olof Mellberg tracking Henry, they reached the break without further alarm.
Arsenal's subsequent frustration was highlighted by an outbreak of petulance upon the half-time whistle with Pires and Patrick Vieira clashing with Mellberg and Roy Aitken, the Villa coach. Police intervened before the verbal exchanges could develop into physical ones. Mike Dean, the referee, may mention the incident in his report but disciplinary action is unlikely. He was in the thick of it and decided against booking anyone. Having cautioned seven players during the match, several harshly, it was not for lack of firmness.
If the incident heightened the tension so did Villa's bright start to the second period. Arsenal needed inspiration or luck. They received the latter, Samuel inexplicably kicking Pires' corner towards his own goal. Hendrie headed off the line but Campbell followed up to score.
"He's a young lad and young lads do silly things at times," said O'Leary of Samuel. "Arsenal needed a lift at the time and we gave it to them."
It still took the introduction of Dennis Bergkamp to revive their fluency and even then Villa would not be subdued. Then Bergkamp closed down Mellberg by the touchline, the ball broke to Henry, he rounded Sorensen and Highbury could finally relax.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 5; Lauren 5, Touré 5, Campbell 7, Cole 5; Ljungberg 5 (Parlour, 79), Gilberto 5, Vieira 6, Pires 7; Wiltord 4 (Bergkamp 6, 66), Henry 7. Substitutes not used: Keown, Taylor (gk), Edu.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Sorensen 6; Delaney 4, Mellberg 7, Johnsen 6, Samuel 6; De La Cruz 4, Hendrie 6, Kinsella 5 (Vassell 5, 60), Barry 5, Whittingham 7; Angel 6. Substitutes not used: Alpay, Hitzlsperger, Postma (gk), Kachloul.
Referee: M Dean (The Wirral) 5.Reuse content