Merson 47, Wright 78
Aston Villa 0
WATCH out the Uniteds of Newcastle and Manchester. The Gunners' defensive heavy artillery is now supported by men who can hit the target with impressive precision. Though not all they did at Highbury yesterday reflected their new enterprise, their second-half display was all that is now beginning to be expected.
Recent performances have made going to see Arsenal less like a penance, but there persists a sense of driving through a series of green traffic lights. Surely, sooner or later, the reds were going to bring everything to a screamingly boring halt. But here they were attempting to extend a run of scoring 15 goals in five games, which was tantamount to proof that Bruce Rioch was lifting the club out of the occasionally successful, but largely turgid reign of his predecessor.
The 3-0 win over Leeds had been convincing evidence of a serious title challenge and at the same time offered hope that this was going to be a campaign un-Arsenal like in its attractiveness. Villa, much more purposeful and organised than last season, had the resources to provide another test of the new, interesting Arsenal, especially as Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp had to face a five-man defence.
Paul Merson and Ray Parlour were earnestly required to augment the Arsenal attack, but Bergkamp's ability to drop deep and within seconds overcome a couple of tackles and return to the head of the attack meant that Paul McGrath's experience was seriously tested, as he faced that threat as well as Wright's pace.
Andy Townsend's return to the Villa midfield after suspension significantly stiffened that area and his linking with the industrious and thoughtful Mark Draper was instrumental in allowing the whole team to settle after Arsenal's early pressure. Even so, having only Dwight Yorke as a permanent striker tended to leave Villa looking thin in Arsenal's half.
Arsenal ended the first half in the same positive mood as they had started and it was only a block on the line by Alan Wright from Martin Keown and the fine goalkeeping of Mark Bosnich that denied them. A near-post drive from Bergkamp saw him dive down to frustrate the shot and almost immediately he had to chip away a 25-yard drive from Parlour.
But whatever thanks Villa offered Bosnich at half-time were quickly withdrawn two minutes into the second period when a neatly worked move instigated by Bergkamp left Glenn Helder with time to centre low into the area. Bosnich seemed to have the cross covered but as he went down the ball slipped from his grip and Merson was there to accept a gifted goal.
Once the deadlock had been broken, Arsenal's new character began to emerge. Bergkamp's shrewd passing and Merson's forceful running at last began to outwit the sturdy Villa back line and suddenly Ian Wright was appearing behind them. Villa had no choice but to reinforce their attack, sending on Tommy Johnson and Savo Milosevic. Yet they remained in retreat against remorseless attacking.
Bosnich's guilt required him to save superbly from Wright's cracking cross-shot after a rangey Arsenal attack that was the prelude to their 78th-minute second goal, which had their fans singing an ironic version of "Boring, boring Arsenal". Bergkamp and Helder exchanged passes at speed before Bergkamp thrust the ball across goal and Wright expertly side-footed in.
A year ago a two-goal lead for Arsenal would have been reason to close up shop and hide the key. Here they kept pressing forgreater rewards. That is what the arrival of Bergkamp and Rioch has done for their outlook.