It was not pretty and it was hardly convincing, but Arsenal did not care as they ended one of their most difficult weeks with a win after two damaging home defeats in the FA Cup and Champions’ League.
The result was not so much a case of third time lucky as Arsenal earning a reward for persistence. They recovered from the shock of conceding an equaliser after 68 minutes to win the game with Santi Cazorla’s second goal of the game five minutes from time.
“The result was vital today,” Arsène Wenger, the manager, said. “We had absolutely to win this game. We couldn’t afford to drop points because we’re in a catch-up situation in the Premier League and we’ve come out of two massive disappointments. But we were focused, united, and we were strong. When Villa came back to 1-1, we found the resources to win. We created an unbelievable number of chances, but I’m proud of the attitude of the team. We went through some difficult days and responded in a united way.”
Their refusal to accept the loss of two points answered those who had proclaimed the imminent end of Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal. “You do your job and focus on winning the next game,” he said. “That’s what I did. I’m not 30 years in this job at the top level to be destroyed by people saying I don’t know what I’m doing. What has been most difficult is not the critics, but the fact that we have lost two games.”
For all the talk of a crisis after the losses to Blackburn Rovers and Bayern Munich, the victory was Arsenal’s fourth win in five unbeaten League games. Significantly, in the race for Champions’ League qualification, it brought Arsenal within a point of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who play at West Ham tomorrow. The two north London rivals meet at White Hart Lane a week today. “We cannot drop points no matter where we go and who we play,” Wenger said.
At first glance, a home game against Aston Villa might appear a fixture that Arsenal could not fail to win, but Paul Lambert’s side had been improving, and had drawn their previous three away matches, scoring seven goals. They must have thought they were in line for a fourth until Cazorla’s late intervention, which sent them into the bottom three.
“We shouldn’t have lost it,” Lambert said. “I thought we were exceptional in parts of that game. We should have been in front at half time and should have come away with a point. We have been playing like that for a couple of weeks now. We gave it a good go.”
Arsenal were quickly out of the blocks, with Jack Wilshere the most advanced midfield player. It was his pass after six minutes that gave Cazorla the chance to cut inside from the left and fire in a shot that was blocked by Nathan Baker. The rebound came back to the Spain midfield player and his second was too powerful for Brad Guzan. But Arsenal sat on their lead, the crowd sat on their hands, and Villa were soon back in the game, with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Wiemann tormenting the home side down the wings. A deflected shot by Agbonlahor was palmed away by Wojciech Szczesny and Agbonlahor only just failed to get a scoring touch on Wiemann’s low cross from the right. Then Szczesny had to dive to his left to beat out Charles N’Zobia’s first-time effort after Wiemann turned Nacho Monreal on the right. Arsenal seemed content to hit on the break and it almost paid off before the interval when Olivier Giroud quickly exchanged passes with Cazorla 18 yards out and shot from an angle, only for Guzan to block, and Villa made sure they stayed in contention by getting men back as Wilshere tried in vain to conjure another opening.
More chances came Arsenal’s way in the second half, but Giroud shanked a shot wide after another one-two with Cazorla, who then sent Guzan full-length with a low shot. But Villa had also warned that they were still in the game, Ciaran Clark heading over from a corner and Agbonlahor aiming wide from Wiemann’s cross. And with the crowd becoming ever more nervous, Villa confirmed their fears. Wiemann fastened on to a poor clearance by Carl Jenkinson, strode forward unchallenged and shot from 22 yards, Szczesny unable to keep the ball out.
Arsenal’s heads could have dropped, but instead they increased the pressure. Giroud’s header was punched to safety by Guzan before Wilshere’s chip found Monreal on the left. His cross was perfectly played back for Cazorla and the £12 million summer signing from Malaga shot home first-time from eight yards.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson (Podolski, 75), Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal; Arteta, Diaby (Ramsey, 60); Walcott, Wilshere, Cazorla; Giroud.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Clark, Baker, Bennett; Westwood (El Ahmadi, 73), Delph; Wiemann, N’Zogbia (Dawkins, 81), Agbonlahor; Benteke.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match: Wiemann (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 6/10