We’ve all heard stories about how seeing your favorite Arsenal player in person changes a fan’s perspective of the player for the better. Robert Pires is no different. I remember watching him glide around the pitch at Highbury in December 2004, eventually sealing Arsenal’s 2-0, Boxing Day win over Fulham. I remember how hard he worked all game and how winning was the only thing that mattered to a classy player and great teammate such as he. You can see why so many Arsenal fans knew that fateful day in Paris (2006 Champions League Final) would signal a change in venue for Pires and alter the face of Arsenal football.
The question for Arsenal after last week’s disappointing loss to Tottenham was could they exhibit the same competitiveness and cutting edge that a player like Pires embodied during his time at the club. After Arshavin’s clinical opener and Nasri’s opportunistic volley the answer seemed to be “yes” as Arsenal took a deserved 2-nil lead into the break. This however changed in the second half as Villa, who were largely wasteful in the first half, resorted to that tried-and-true tactic of so many of Arsenal’s opponents this year: exert minimal pressure and wait for the cracks to form.
Nevermind whether or not John Carew was offside, the time and space Ciaran Clark had INSIDE the Arsenal penalty area was absolutely criminal. Replays showed once again Clichy’s decision-making abilities leave a lot to be desired as he initially committed to closing down Clark before backing off in an attempt to eliminate a potential pass out to the side, an error that once again highlighted Arsenal’s defensive fragility when protecting a lead.
Fortunately, the likes of the once again stellar Andre Arshavin, industrious Tomas Rosicky and the workhorse Marouane Chamakh created enough resolve on the offensive end of the field for Arsenal to paper over the cracks that were becoming all-too obvious for Villa as the game wore on. Rosicky’s composure and measured ball to Chamakh (he does score a lot of goals for an “indecisive” striker, doesn’t he?) gifted the Moroccan his seventh goal of the Premiership campaign and restored what most teams would consider to be a comfortable lead.
But as all other Gooners can testify, two goal leads are not to be taken for granted. What’s especially worrying about Arsenal’s lapses of concentration in defense is that for the second time in a week, the squad conceded against a side who were performing very poorly on the day. Aston Villa had struggled during most of the first half to complete a string of more than five passes and as a result had created very little in the offensive third, but they looked like seasoned assassins in the 70th minute as Arsenal’s defense simply couldn’t live with the aerial prowess of 31 year-old Richard Dunne and then failed to win the second header as well as Clark nudged the ball in just under the bar. Arsenal supporters the world over and Wenger’s water bottle were fearing a repeat of last week’s second half meltdown as Aston Villa clumsily yet progressively built momentum. After weathering a small storm of Villa chances, Arsenal finally restored the two goal cushion as Chamakh’s delicate lob was nodded in at the near post by Wilshere, who’s form was resurgent in the second half.
The difference between this week and last was that Arsenal’s offense was up to the task of of bailing out the defence, as Rosicky, Arshavin, Chamakh and co. all enjoyed the acres of space they were given by Villa. Furthermore, they turned this gift into four goals, the most Arsenal have scored on the road this season. Whether this can be attributed to a new-found ruthlessness in attack a la Robert Pires or just an ailing Villa side who have yet to come to grips with the departure of Martin O’Neill remains to be seen. Facing cross-town neighbors Fulham at home in a week’s time should provide further proving ground for Arsenal as they will no doubt be well organized in defense and look to take advantage of set pieces much the same way Villa did today.
Thoughts on Arsenal: Able to compensate for a soft defense this week, but in the long run simply outscoring an opponent who is allowed to score at will is not the solution. Arsenal overall were good value for their win and briefly sit atop the Premier League table, but need to develop that elusive defensive grit if they want be there at the end of the season.
Until that happens, scoring lots and lots of goals seems to be the only answer. On the bright side, it’s certainly not a “boring” answer. I’d like to propose they now be referred to as “Coronary, coronary, Arsenal.”
Here’s to more of the same free scoring in midweek as the young guns face Wigan. Up the Arsenal!