14 January 2014

Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: 85 minutes of dominance, one minute glory, 25 minutes of nerve

Far be it from me to criticize three points, especially when claimed on the road, but this one showed two sides to the squad: one, our impressive ability to boss a match; and two, just how easy it is to let that dominance slip away. After all, for about 85 minutes, we simply owned the game, showing our superiority over a dispirited and out-classed side. Inside of one minute of those 85, we actually delivered, scoring two goals. With a bit more incisiveness on the offensive end, a third or fourth goal should have been in the offing. Indeed, at the 75' mark, Christian Benteke finally remembered that his job is to score goals, and scored just his third goal of the season since bagging that brace against us on opening day. For the next 15 minutes, then, we had to scramble to preserve a lead with all hands on deck.

A match that included a minor concussion, a likely broken nose, a possible broken metatarsal, four yellows, two errors that led to goals (one for each side), and more than 15 minutes of stoppage time are not ingredients in an attractive match. Indeed, a dispirited Villa side could offer little resistance as we confidently if diffidently controlled most of the first half, ending it (I believe) with 71% possession. However, aside from two sharp exchanges, we seemed to lack the intent or desire to drive a dagger home, looking content to control the tempo and tenor of the match on the assumption that toothless Villa would, eventually, roll over for us. 

In that 34th minute, when Özil found Monreal with a superb through-ball, which Monreal curled across the top of the box, past Giroud, to Wilshere, we finally sliced them open. However, it was a bit fortunate as Wilshere scuffed his shot, getting just enough on it to slip past Guzan. Then, on the ensuing kick-off, Wilshere dispossessed Delph, lofted a cross into the box, and Giroud, who benefitted from a generous bounce of his own knee, put a sharper shot back across goal through the defender's leg and past the outstretched fingers of Guzan. From there, it looked like the rout was on—two goals in 60 seconds seemed to have crushed what remained of Villa's spirit, and the way we've played defense this season should have been enough to suggest that we'd not only keep a clean-sheet but perhaps find a third or fourth goal.  However, neither would come to pass, and we're a bit fortunate to have escaped with three points.

However, we only mustered eight shots, four on target, and were actually outshot by Villa, who took eleven shots with five on target—a number of which could just as easily gone in. Whereas we dominated that first half to the tune of two goals and 71% possession, the second half was another story. Our possession for the half actually dropped to about 55%as Guzan and others simply kicked the ball as far as they could, hoping something would stick. Our defenders ended the night with 54 clearances between them, an indication of how often those long balls went in vain. It's ironic then that Villa's goal came, not through such hump-and-hope tactics so much as through an individual error from someone usually quite adept with the ball at his feet. Santi Cazorla, under a bit of pressure on the sideline, gave the ball away carelessly, leading to a cross that Benteke, with a superb diving header, scored his first goal since September. 

That once-unassailable lead and vaunted defense suddenly looked brittle. Ironically, despite my suggestion that we concede possession to draw Villa forward, rather than pinning them back, we became the ones who looked to be pinned back for long stretches after that, as the threat of Benteke latching onto another long-ball proved too real to ignore. Indeed, he had a few headed-shots in but did little else to trouble Szczesny. We were perhaps guilty of dropping back a bit too much to defend, a strategy that often backfires as it lets the air out of the team's momentum and concedes the initiative to the opponent. You take your foot off the gas and, of course, slow down mentally and physically. It's possible that the manner of our scoring twice in such quick succession convinced us that our opponents would die a slow death and we could sit back to watch it happen.

Instead, it was just a flesh-wound, and the damned Villans kept coming back. We gifted them an opening and were fortunate to stanch the bleeding at our end.

Speaking of blood, Monreal had to come off with what may be a broken metatarsal (middle of the foot) and Rosický had to come off after having his nose bent sideways, courtesy of a wild elbow from Agbonlahor. Monreal's might be the more urgent, given our relative thinness at left-back and the nature of the injury. Our midfield is rather crowded, so much so that Podolski seemed visibly irritated that Oxlade-Chamberlain subbed in for Rosický, but it was a move that makes sense—we needed who could help with possession and play comfortably on the right. Podolski is more of an attacker on the left, but his dissatisfaction reinforces rumors that Arsène's confidence in or patience with him is thinning. We'll have to keep an eye on that situation to see what develops. 

It's a bit of an awkward situation, but winning helps to gloss such issues over, at least a little better than does losing, and so too does sitting top of the table, which is where we find ourselves for another week or so. We may even have a chance to pull away from the pack over the next few weeks if we can take advantage of our softer schedule while those rivals slip a bit. We'll have to check on Monreal's foot, Rosický's nose, and Podolski's pride, of course, as we prepare for Fulham on Saturday, but we'll have a few players coming back as well.

Still top of the table.