Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Out of the darkness and back to the top

Whilst Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa didn’t quite fit the ‘game of two halves’ cliché, there were definitely two distinct parts to it. For the majority of the game, Arsenal were in control, had plenty of possession and didn’t look in danger of conceding.
Then, as Aston Villa cranked up some pressure near the end of the match and scored, Arsenal were suddenly trying to see the game out and hang on to the three points.
The two phases of the game rather scarily coincided with an extremely inconvenient power-cut I experienced whilst watching the game. When everything went black, Arsenal were cruising back to the top of the league. When I was able to get the radio commentary up on my phone, Christian Benteke snuck in at the back post to head the ball in and suddenly I was nervous about the game, unable to see it and relying on candle light.
Even though Arsenal made heavy work of the the win, and I was suddenly in the dark and not opening my fridge to try and keep food cold, it was hard to complain. Having the frustration of waiting until Monday to play and after seeing all the nearby teams below Arsenal in the table win over the weekend, these three points shouldn’t be underestimated. Every other team is waiting for Arsenal to crumble. Some still discount them from the title race and only think about Manchester City and Chelsea, however Arsenal won’t go away. The longer the season goes, and the more games Arsenal refuse to buckle in, the more people have to believe that this team can last the distance.
Whilst it wasn’t always a fluent performance, the match showed how far Arsenal have come since the first day of the season. The comparisons between Aston Villa’s win at the Emirates were going to be inevitable and made for a great media story, but the difference really was marked. In August, Arsenal were naive and weren’t focused enough defensively. The same couldn’t be said on Monday night. Except for Santi Cazorla giving the ball away in the build-up to Benteke’s goal, Arsenal were disciplined and didn’t let Villa create other clear cut chances.
It wasn’t a surprise to Arsenal fans to see Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny perform well at the back, but their organisation and excellence when the team has it’s back to the wall is starting to get wider recognition. Thomas Vermaelen is still an excellent defender, but he won’t get in the side with Mertesacker and Koscielny in such good form. Instead of Arsenal’s midfield options and attacking fluidity being the main reason for people believing this could be a great season for the Gunners, it’s the BFG and Kos.
Fans can also be optimistic as there seems to be more to come from Mesut Ozil. The German was back in the starting line-up and whilst he isn’t dominating games in the way some expected him to having cost £42 million, he is still making some telling impacts on matches. His pass through to Nacho Monreal in the build-up to the first goal was superb, and one that few in the league could have played as well.
That move culminated in an excellent finish from Jack Wilshere, who is beginning to have a bigger influence on matches. Playing alongside Flamini or Arteta, he’s able to make late runs towards the penalty area and have a license to attack knowing there is a holding player behind him. With Ozil and Cazorla there as well, he has less pressure to be the creative hub of the team, so can just express himself. After scoring, his pass to set-up Giroud for the second goal was instinctive, but was almost bettered by a chipped pass he played to Kieran Gibbs in the second half that led to a chance.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back and Lukas Podolski chomping at the bit to be involved, there are attacking options there for Arsenal, and all of them will be needed to help maintain a push for trophies in different competitions.
The result was much closer than it should have been, but after seeing other title challengers win, that fact Arsenal got three points at Villa Park is the only thing that matters. My power might have gone away when watching the game on Monday night, but Arsenal’s title challenge is definitely still on.