It appeared Arsene Wenger had a clear plan in mind when he left Andrey Arshavin out of the squad that traveled to Braga midweek: to freshen up the enigmatic Russian and make him the key player in a bid to win at Villa Park.
Arshavin was absolutely outstanding for 90 minutes against Aston Villa, troubling them with a performance full of delightful spontaneity, rapier-style directness and — yes, I am going to say this about the often-lethargic Russian — never-say-die energy. He scored the first goal of the afternoon from the left with a superb piece of play before Wenger utilised him more centrally in the second half.
This was the Russian’s best performance of the season and on a day like today he looks unplayable, rolling off defenders, shifting the ball one way and the other just enough to unbalance an opponent and tearing off toward the opposition goal. While the marvelous opener was his pivotal contribution to the afternoon another moment, in which he left Robert Pires planted on his rear, will stay in the memory a little longer.
Aston Villa went into this game holding on to a seven-match undefeated streak at home that included draws with Chelsea and Manchester United, while our boys were looking to bounce back from last weekend’s shocking North London Derby loss. Almost from the opening minute to the last of the first-half, we dominated the game.
Alex Song and Jack Wilshere bossed Villa’s novice pair of midfielders, Bacary Sagna found space to get forward and help out Samir Nasri and Arshavin delighted with his dribbling skills. Our domination was converted into a huge amount of half-chances with only Tomas Rosicky’s best effort, a outside-of-the-right-boot flick from just inside the edge of the penalty area, one you would expect to be put away.
But that all changed when a miscommunication between John Collins and Luke Young left Arshavin with space to exploit. He wasted no time in doing so, zipping forward, cutting inside and pinging in a wonderful low shot between three defenders that nestles just inside the post. It is the type of shot he so often attempts to squeeze out and was executed perfectly.
At a goal up we had some reward for an utterly dominant first-half performance, although we should have had more as Nasri missed an open goal and Chamakh had a header brilliantly saved by Friedel. No matter though as a couple of minutes later Nasri made amends, thrashing home a deflected volley from Arshavin’s corner.
No fan would have required pointing out that 2-0 was the same score as last week and as such, any thoughts of ending the match on top of the table would have been entirely premature. It simply had to be the case that the same thoughts were going through the minds of the boys in the change-room, so a fighting, committed start to the second-half was a necessity.
Yet while the performance that we all wanted in the opening stanza of the second half — with Wilshere, Rosicky and Arshavin keeping up the tempo — Villa still scored.
One half of Villa’s baby midfield duo, Ciaran Clark, got the goal, firing in an excellent volley from outside the area, but in truth it should never have stood. Firstly, a clearly-offside John Carew blocked Lukasz Fabianski’s line of sight, forcing him to shuffle his feet one yard the wrong way and inevitably fail to keep the shot out. Secondly, and far more concerning for Arsenal fans, Gael Clichy inexplicably dropped off from pressuring the attacker to mark up on a much less dangerous player. An unbelievably poor piece of defending, not his first this season, and with the more reliable Kieran Gibbs back again, surely now is the time for him to be given a run in the first team.
Fortunately a response to their goal came quickly as Rosicky put through Chamakh and the Frenchman prodded home. It was more a testament to the strength of our attack than any great show of character, yet nevertheless the two-goal margin was restored and with it came some breathing space.
Despite the buffer the rest of the half became a far more difficult game than it ever should have been. Arshavin’s switch to the middle of the park worked well, allowing the Russian to attack from more dangerous positions, yet the game as whole was far too open for a team leading 3-1 away from home. The football was played at a frantic pace that suited Villa, as a desire for tempo was overemphasised to our detriment, and our ball retention as a team was rather poor.
In the end the tactics from the manager appeared to be “we can score more goals than you” and although this outlook eventually proved correct, it made for tense times at Villa Park. Indeed, the home side pulled another goal back, Clark taking advantage of some poor defending from a corner-kick to score a second, to set up a thrilling final twenty minutes.
It was tense viewing through the final moments, particularly when Denilson and Gibbs replaced Nasri and Arshavin, but with the clock ticking deep into injury time it appeared as if just about enough had been done to secure the result. But then, a final flourish: Denilson’s shot deflected into the path of Chamakh, he crossed for Wilshere and the little Englishman nabbed his Premier League goal. With his head. Remarkable.
4-2. Game over. Arsenal on top of the Premier League table (for about a second, admittedly). What more can you say?
It’s clear that we still have huge problems with our defending and the consistent fear that Villa might steal something from this game without ever deserving too is a huge concern. But I don’t want to remember that today.
In a game that rattled along at a frantic and unrelentless pace almost from start to finish, perhaps due to the absence of certain Spanish playmaker who so often plays the role of metronome in our side, I want to remember the performance of Andrey Arshavin. We have been waiting a long time now to see the real Arshavin and at Villa Park, with victory vital and our captain absent, this was the Arshavin we had been waiting for.
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