Having endured the first 60 minutes of the Chavs’ vs. Spuds’ collective attempt to discover the best cure for insomnia, I was extremely pleased to find a half-decent stream to watch the mighty Red & White take on the Villains. I expected AV to put in a performance, partly based on their half decent effort during our last encounter with them in January (FA-cup), and partly on the fact that they have nothing really to play for anymore, which makes these sorts of games a bit of a bonus for them.
Arsenal has build up a phenomenal momentum since the dark PL days in January, mainly based on grit, togetherness, perseverance, and an occasional sprinkling of quality. It is fair to say that the encounters with Pool, NU, and Everton were not the most beautiful games of football Arsenal has ever played, but, at this stage of the season, we don’t care one iota!
However, our game against Villa was very different from our recent incredible achievements as a result of blood, sweat and thunder: there were periods of free-flowing football and, on more than a few occasions, of individual brilliance. In fact, I felt I was watching a game of the Fabregas-era yesterday; you know, one of those where we were in total control from the start, as a result of an early goal. This probably was our easiest game of the season and it is fair to say that the Villains’ lacklustre performance, combined with the early ‘easy’ goal, helped us a long way.
Arsenal suffered a mini-blow when, unexpectedly, Koscielny could not start as a result of a knee-problem. However, Djourou was ready and fit to take his place, and his mind was instantly taken off any nerves he might have felt, when Heskey planted inadvertently the back of his arm firmly in Johan’s face. Another great example of Johan Cruijff’s fantastically simple quote: ‘Every disadvantage has an advantage, and every advantage has a disadvantage’! JD never looked back and had a fine performance during the entire game.
Both teams started with a formation of 4-2-3-1, with an aim to press early on the opposition’s goalkeeper and defenders. This led to an open start in which Arsenal dominated and created a number of chances. However, AV had a few half-chances themselves as a result of quick breaks, mainly from the right, through their promising – yet disappointing on the day – young talent of Albrighton.
On the 9th minute, Arsenal produced a great move on the right by the almost telepathically aligned duo of Theo and Sagna, and goal scoring machine RvP. The latter’s lay-off reaches Theo who shoots at goal from close range but straight at Shay Given, who is able to parry his effort, albeit straight in the path of Sagna, who then fluffs his shot with his weaker left foot. Arsenal keeps up the pressure and it does not take long before we score.
Most of the pressure had been coming form the right, but it was Gibbs and Gervinho who were able to breach the Villains’ defence first. In the 16th minute, Gervinho, who played quite centrally during the first period of the game, picked out a good run by Gibbs and the latter found himself in the box with a half decent shooting opportunity. I expected him to pass sideways to another player, but he decided to take a shot himself and was richly rewarded for it: 1-0! The goalkeeper should have done better, but one should not look a Given-horse in the mouth, and I am sure Gibbs won’t do that either: his first PL goal, so early in the game, was just what we needed.
AV kept pressing high up the pitch, forcing Szczesny to demonstrate to us the one skill he still needs to improve on: kicking the ball out with some precision. Arsenal, though, managed to pass itself with relative ease out of the Villians’ inconsistent pressing, and a few quick attacks made sure we kept the pressure on our opponent. TV found Theo with a fine diagonal cross and our right-winger demonstrated once again that he possesses a fine first touch, leaving Warnock for dead in a fraction of a second. This time though, it was not to be, as his second touch pushed the ball just a bit too far so Cueller could clear it at the last moment.
The first of three top-quality moments of the game materialised at the 25th minute. Alex Song, who probably has the most complete skills-set in the PL – he can play as a CB, DM, AM; he might even be good as a nr9 or a goalkeeper! – produced once more one of his trademark lofted balls over the top. This time, it was not aimed at RvP but at Theo, who made another clever horizontal run towards the box. His first touch was excellent again and he finished clinically past Given: 2-0!! Some will argue the Villa defence should have done better, but the sheer quality of a) Song’s lofted ball, b) Theo’s first touch and c) his controlled finish were a joy to behold: football at it’s very best!
The second top-quality moment happened on the 39th minute. Song and RvP combined through the middle to reach into the box: RvP seemed to have lost the ball but somehow drags it back from the defender with his left leg, moving it swiftly onto his right, but his shot somehow hit the head of Warnock: it could so easily have been the third goal. It was a brilliant piece of skill by our captain.
AV started the second half with a low tempo and similar tactics. Arsenal was able to pass the ball round with relative ease but we lacked a bit of urgency and focus in our attacking endeavours. Gervinho was involved in a few attacks but was no longer able to deliver a precise final ball for his teammates. But the damage was done in the first half, and with the Villains lacking the spirit to start a fight-back, the sun shining nicely, Arsenal enjoying the ‘easiness’ of the game and the supporters singing in unison, we allowed the game to peter out a bit in the second half.
There were still some noticeable moments though. Rosicky had a decent effort on target in the 65th minute, and Santos, who had just come on for Gibbs, gave the ball away clumsily in his first minute on the pitch, which could easily have led to a Villa goal. He can be forgiven though as he, naturally, will have been a bit rusty after such a long lay-off. In the 73rd minute, RvP takes a cheeky free-kick from the left, only for Given to just tip it over the bar. In the 82nd minute, the newly-on Ox makes a blistering run on the right into the box, but a last-minute, great tackle by Ireland just keeps the young Englishman from pulling the trigger. I think Ireland just had enough of the ball for it not to be a penalty, so Dowd called it well imo.
The third top-quality moment of the match was left to the very last minute of the game. In extra time, Arsenal were rewarded a free-kick well outside the area, after a foul on Song. Arteta stepped up once again and this time he was successful with a thunderous bullet to the top right corner of the goal.
A magnificent effort and thoroughly deserved: 3-0!!! You won’t see a better free-kick this season.
Seven wins on the spin, another clean-sheet, a fitter than ever squad, and a real belief our team can go all the way and finish in the top-3 in May. Happy times!
We are in the driving seat and ahead of us are the Manc teams – the new Oilers and Old Bacon Face’s bunch of scrapers – and they are lucky there are most probably not enough games left to catch up with them anymore. In the rear-mirror we can see the sorry-Spuds and if we narrow our eyes with a bit of effort, we can see the old Oilers, the Chavs, catching their breath whilst desperately looking around who they can put the blame on this time. In the far, far distance we can see some ant-like spots that can only be Dalglish’s darlings. Ooh the virtues of momentum!
We are not there yet though – let’s be careful not to become complacent – but if we can keep this good run of form up, then soon we’ll be firmly positioned in third spot. Not only would this make us the top team in London once more, it would also provide a perfect platform for a firing-on-all-cylinders team for next season. It has been a year of transition, with some tough moments and big disappointment, but the road ahead is full of promise and potential, based on a sound foundation of all the things that matter in football: a great squad, a great manager, a financially healthy club with money for one or two more quality players, a great stadium, fantastic support, and a football philosophy based on total football. Class is permanent – long may it continue!