That was easy then. Arsenal completely outplayed Aston Villa and won comfortably while cruising through the second half in second gear. The macro-level stats provide a good picture of the game. Arsenal completed 534 or their 608 passes that led to 72 percent possession as against Villa’s 152/226 passes and 28 percent possession. The hosts managed 19 shots that provided the game’s 3 goals. Villa couldn’t find the net with their 3 attempts. Indeed, the Gunners attempted and completed more passes in the Final Third (209/247) than Villa did on the entire pitch.
While Arsenal are clearly the League’s form side and their performance was expected, part of the dominance was also down to the timid and rather archaic approach that Alex McLeish adopted. In his post match interview, the Villa boss said he’d considered playing Weimann up top but went for Heskey because he felt they’d be a bit “lightweight” with Weimann and Ireland. Furthermore, it seemed he was criticizing his players for trying to play the ball out from the back – obliquely citing Arsenal’s second goal as an example – when he wanted them to lump it forward. Of course, he didn’t say it in so many words but the team selection and his thought process in that interview tends to betray his tactical luminosity.
Arsenal too had a surprise in the line-up, not Gervinho for Ramsey – that was to an extent predictable, with Djourou taking the place of Koscielny who woke up with tendinitis. That didn’t affect the defending or the style of play at all as Heskey was hardly a threat. Even though the former English international won all 4 of his aerial duels, he only received a total of 10 passes and completed 8 of his 12 pass attempts in 66 minutes on the pitch. With the lead opposing striker barely involved with the play himself or able to bring others into the game, Arsenal’s defence had a relatively comfortable outing.
In the first half it would not be a stretch to say corners for Arsenal were Villa’s only real attacking opportunities as they broke forward in numbers on more than one occasion. Except an ambitious strike from Albrighton though, the Villains didn’t have much to show for their efforts.
All the action was at the other end of the pitch. As expected, Villa’s full-backs were their weak link that Arsenal exploited adroitly to get the first two goals.
Gibbs opened his Premier League account after a delightful exchange of passes on the left between the full-back, Rosicky, and Gervinho who picked up the assist. Gervinho beat Albrighton with clever body movement to create half a yard for the pass. Hutton lost track of his opposing full-back when Gibbs ventured into the inside channel. His shot might have taken a deflection of Collins and there can be arguments that Given should have done better but it would be harsh to take anything away from the young man’s composure or finish.
The second was funny in some ways. It started with a long punt from Szczesny as he aimed a free-kick towards Van Persie in an uncharacteristic manner. Collins easily won it and headed it back to his goalkeeper. Given then rolled it toward Cuellar, again an aberration one might say. There was nothing surprising about Arsenal’s high pressing though as Rosicky charged forward while the other players were tight on their men. This forced an panicky pass from the centre-back. Of course, the quality of Song’s delivery, and that of Walcott’s first touch and finish was simply sublime.
In the second half it did seem like Arsenal had eased off. Villa saw a bit more of the ball while Given wasn’t being tested as often. The Gunners also seemed too casual in the attacking areas as some decent counter-attacking opportunities were squandered.
Arsene introduced Ramsey and Santos with just over 20 minutes remaining. It didn’t change the patterns of play significantly but an error from the Brazilian could have brought Villa back into the game as he gave the ball away to an opponent inside the penalty box. But Weimann, somewhat surprisingly, opted for a square ball across the face of goal rather than a shot.
On the whole Villa looked more secure at the back and were able to push the Gunners into their own half but it wasn’t enough. As is typical, Arsene summed it up well,
It was a controlled performance in the second half, we controlled the game and managed not to concede a goal. Our fatigue came in a bit because we gave a lot at Everton on Wednesday night to win the game.
In injury time, Arteta scored the third with a bullet of a free-kick. Wenger again had something interesting to add,
I prefer it when he takes free-kicks with his laces because he has short feet. Usually the guys who have good inside [of the foot] have bigger, longer feet, and when a guy has short feet like that they are very talented at hitting the ball with their laces. The ball floats a little bit when they take it and I think he is more built to hit the free-kicks like that.
The “floating” free-kicks do remind us of the type that Ronaldo and Juninho specialized in and recently Drogba too has scored from. But as this video by @cwdcomps so lucidly captures, Arteta has himself scored many such goals in the past. Having a dead-ball specialist in the side adds a different threat to the Arsenal. Teams will not find it convenient to foul the Gunners in the Final Third if Arteta and Van Persie build on their abilities. Then again, we must not get carried away by one such blistering strike. Let’s see if the Spaniard can repeat it before the season is over, especially in a crunch situation.
Along with the free-kick there were a couple of other attempts from distance by Arteta and Rosicky that must have stung the palms of Given. Both the players picked the right moments to shoot from distance and executed it well even if it didn’t result in goals. It was an encouraging sight to say the least.
Finally, if I heard it right, the commentator said something about Arsenal winning every Saturday afternoon 3 pm kickoff at home in the last 18 months or so. That, if true, is some stat.
Szczesny: Another comfortable game for the young custodian. Didn’t have a save to make but did take a couple of vital catches and made a timely punch. Again there was the odd occasion where his distribution gave the ball away in a semi-dangerous area but it’s getting better.
Sagna: After the battle in the previous game, this must have been a walk in the park for the Frenchman. Again saw a lot of the ball and was joint highest in passes completed (63) as well as passing accuracy (94%). Also won all his ground and aerial duels and the only tackle he had to make.
Djourou: Did well to fill in the boots of Koscielny whose stock has risen steadily over the last few months. Won most of his individual battles (5/7 GD, 2/3 AD) and was strong when needed like the time Ireland was looking to get in behind in a one-v-one but Djourou just shrugged him off. Also made the most clearances, using his height and presence to good advantage.
Vermaelen: Didn’t have as much success in his duels (1/5 GD, 1/4 AD) but was always busy and forced the strikers to work hard. Very composed and dynamic on the ball. It was his pass that found Rosicky between the lines in the build-up to the first goal. And who can forget that delightful diagonal hit that had put Walcott in behind in the 20th minute. Was again involved in the attack with a header that went off target and a couple of chances that he created.
Gibbs: The goal obviously stands out but he has been getting into very good attacking positions and it wasn’t a surprise. Saw a lot more of the ball as Arsenal’s attack wasn’t as skewed to the right side but is still in a learning process and will get into the game more and more as he evolves.
The defenders didn’t have to face many major threats. Even when Arsenal had taken their foot off the gas Villa just didn’t create enough.
Song: Another chip, another assist. Another one who saw a lot of the ball but didn’t have to push forward as much because Villa rarely put him under pressure. Put in a controlled defensive shift in front of the back four winning all 3 tackles and 7 of 11 ground duels.
Rosicky: Was heavily involved in the build-up to the first goal including a simple-looking yet clever pass that registered as another pre-assist to his name. His sprint forced the error from Cuellar that led to the second goal. Overall it was another dynamic effort from Little Mozart.
Arteta: Again clocked the most touches and kept the game ticking. But in this game he also seemed more intent than usual on testing the Keeper. Had four shots and scored a cracker with his last one.
The midfield wasn’t really challenged by Villa. The led the forward momentum in the first half and contributed to the calmer approach in the second.
Walcott: His first touch in this game deserves special mention as it’s usually cited as a weakness. Controlled some long passes really well. His finish showed awareness of the goalposts and technique to place the ball deftly in a way that gave Given little chance. Was a constant threat in the first half but faded away as the play got slower and more casual.
RvP: His work-rate was again top notch. Was a bit unlucky with a goalline clearance and a good save by Given. By his standards it is tempting to nitpick but it doesn’t seem fair.
Gervinho: Got into very good positions and used the ball intelligently. Also tracked back when needed. Should be a confidence boost for him after a difficult time following the Africa Cup of Nations.
Subs: Ramsey was efficient with the ball. Santos looked rusty. Oxlade-Chamberlain was lively.
Wenger: Seems like he is still working on his best attacking combination or it could be that Le Boss wants to wingers at home and an extra midfielder in away games. It’s ok if the players ease off after taking a two goal lead but if they had some predetermined ways to attack they might not be so casual in possession. It’s an area where Arsene can help his team improve.
Before ending I want to share a snippet from an email I received from a friend.
This might probably come as expected to you. But it would come as a surprise to a lot of people I know. Taking inspiration from your Scott Parker post, I just pulled out stats for how premier league table would look if we were to keep the disastrous start (the first 7 games) aside.
Would you have guessed City, Arsenal, and United (game in hand) have picked up the same number of points since the time the Gunners hit rock bottom at White Hart Lane!? No one can simply wish away the start but that table tells it’s own tale, doesn’t it?Follow @goonerdesi