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Aston Villa 2 - 4 Arsenal: match report

0 - 1 Arshavin 38'
0 - 2 Nasri 44'
1 - 2 Clark 51'
1 - 3 Chamakh 55'
2 - 3 Clark 70'
2 - 4 Wilshere 93'

Arsenal looked for a while to have lost the will to live again, but managed to hang on and finally put to Aston Villa away with a late Jack Wilshere header today in a woolly one at Villa Park.

Aston Villa lined up to start in a 4-4-1-1, with Robert Pires lined up behind John Carew in attack.  They looked to defend relatively deeply and frustrate Arsenal before hitting on the counter.  Pires and Carew, though, struggled to orchestrate the link-up play when Villa won the ball, which they did not do very often for long stretches of opening half hour, being content to let Arsenal play in front of them and not press the midfield too much.  They did do a decent job of winning tackles and interceptions,however, particularly on the flanks, and they managed to keep Arsenal from threatening more than two times, a Samir Nasri shot and a Tomas Rosicky shot both going just wide.

The Gunners' breakthrough was coming, though, and when it did, it only took two players.  Lukasz Fabianski kicked the ball long, Luke Young and Richard Dunne mixed themselves up and neither played it, and as it trickled down the left, Andrei Arshavin (Russian for "Meerkat who hates playing in the winter") picked it up, brought it inside, and slashed it home off of Brad Friedel's fingers into the lower far corner.  It was a typical Arshavin goal, cutting inside against the grain, but questions might be asked of Dunne and Young.

Arsenal's lead would double within five minutes.  After Friedel made an outstanding reflex save from a Marouane Chamakh header, Arshavin looped the resultant corner in from the left, and Samir Nasri unleashed a wicked volley from 20 yards off the ground and past Friedel, gaining a favor from a deflection in the box.

2-0 to Arsenal headed into the break, which, well, yeah.  Everyone and their uncle was tweeting "#cmonArsenalexpectaresponse" during half time, and Aston Villa had one in the shape of one of their promising midfield quartet, Ciaran Clark.  Sebastien Squillaci headed clear from a high ball into the box, the ball falling to Clark 25 yards out.  Alex Song had lost his run, nobody closed Clark down, and he unleashed a wicked shot that flew into the top corner.  It was a lovely hit.  There was some question about John Carew standing five yards offside and right in Fabianski's line of vision, but Mark Clattenburg made no decision about it, and the goal stood.

For Arsenal supporters, this conceding-within-fifteen-after-the-half thing was getting very old, and suddenly, predictably, Aston Villa looked like attacking with purpose and pressing.  Gérard Houllier had brought on Nathan Delfouneso for Pires at the half, and the faster striker had forced Arsenal's defenders to pull back, but Song hadn't gotten the memo about the increased space in front of the line by the time Clark buried his first goal.

However, Arsenal had an answer this time, and Tomas Rosicky brought it to them.  Playing centrally today in the absence of Cesc Fabregas, Rosicky was able to find positions from whence to deliver his usual brand of incisive passing, and although he had moved more laterally in the second half, he and Arshavin switched again momentarily, the Russian sliding the pass through to Rosicky in the middle.  He turned, ran, looked up, spotted Chamakh making a run, and put the ball through with enough weight to cut out the defense but give Chamakh time to prod it just past the onrushing Friedel.  Inch-perfect, and vitally, 3-1 to the Gunners.  It was also Chamakh's tenth goal in all competitions on the year, which for a guy who cost the club nothing, well, it works.

Villa, for their part, were not done.  Playing with more direct urgency, now, they won a series of free kicks and corners, and in the 70th minute, finally made one count.  Ashley Young sent a corner in from the left, Richard Dunne headed it goalwards, and Ciaran Clark, with Song just watching, prodded it over the line off the bar with his head.  3-2, and Arsenal were once again on the back foot.

They would have to endure fourteen minutes of pressure before Wenger acted, bringing on Kieran Gibbs for Arshavin, Gibbs taking over on the left, and Denilson for Nasri.  The changes finally stabilized the team, Gibbs' cover on the left and Denilson's calm passing in midfield slowing the pace again.  Five minutes later, Wenger stabilized things further, bringing on Johan Djourou for Rosicky, all three subs defensive ones.

With the pace slowed and the game settled a bit, Arsenal played on the counter, and they got what they wanted in the third minute of injury time.  Wilshere found Chamakh on the left, who passed to Denilson, whose shot was blocked.  Chamakh collected and calmly lifted the ball towards the far post, where an onrushing Jack Wilshere dove in and pushed it over the line with his head.  4-2 to the Arsenal, game over, the frayed nerves of supporters and the team soothed for a few days.

The attacking threat of Arhsavin, Chamakh, and Rosicky were excellent today going forward.  However, obviously, questions still remain about Arsenal's ability to finish off matches.  It seems that when Arsenal gain the advantage on the scoresheet, a few things happen in conjunction with each other: their passes lose zip, they perhaps lose some legs and stop moving into space as well, and they focus too much on maintaining possession and thus force passes and stop showing as much for each other.  This is all "anecdotal", as it were; their passing stats today, for example, are almost identical in the first half and the second half, according to the Guardian chalkboards.  However, look at the difference in their tackling (which may be explained as much by what Villa did than by what Arsenal did not do):

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Whatever the case, Arsenal seem to lose their movement and passing somehow as soon as the "olé!"s break out around the ground, and other teams are quicker to close them down.  That sense of space and time on the ball just disappears.  Any other thoughts on why?  Is this really the case?

At any rate, three points.