Monday 26 March 2012

Few could cope with this resurgent Arsenal

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0

Good weather, a perfect playing surface, a visiting team that had little belief – all the ingredients for a convincing Arsenal home win. So often in the past, though, we’ve not taken advantage of the opportunity and let opponents build confidence as games progressed. No chance of that on Saturday. We started in top gear and barely eased up throughout the first half, tearing Villa apart before they had chance to even think about getting a foothold in the match. Then we saw the 90 minutes out with assurance.

It was exactly what we needed to keep the momentum building, especially after the Spurs-Chelsea draw at lunchtime. I’ve seen some comments recently from fellow born-pessimists arguing the team is playing like it is now because the pressure is off. I can’t agree and Saturday showed why; the earlier result meant we had a perfect chance to pull away from Spurs in the race for third and we didn’t buckle under the expectation. Before this run of league wins started in earnest our season was on the verge of collapsing early again, we risked slipping out of Europe's elite and the criticism of the boss was reaching boiling point. That is real pressure in my eyes and the players have produced their most impressive displays just when they needed to.

What struck me in the opening spell of the game were the positions Walcott and Gervinho found. During the more pedestrian parts of this season, we’ve played crab football and often our front three would look isolated and restricted in their movement. Against Villa, they were drifting in-field more often and staying there for far longer. It obviously unsettles defences and encourages more interplay and overlaps than having wingers stuck only on the sidelines. Walcott was excellent in the first-half. When the ball sticks with him and he remains consistently dangerous like Saturday he becomes a major weapon. And his goal showed he is a stronger finisher than many think.

Theo and Gervinho’s impact was made all the greater thanks to Sagna and Gibbs pushing so far forward. As with the Newcastle game when Sagna’s flicks from Szczesny’s clearances were helping set Walcott away, so again both full backs were advancing way beyond the halfway line and forcing their opposite numbers deeper and deeper. And that results in chances for Gibbs like the opening goal.

The downside to the more adventurous approach is that we look even more vulnerable to counter attacks. Villa did have a couple of openings in the first half that stronger teams could have exploited. Let’s be clear, this Villa side looked disinterested at best and relegation fodder at worst. Even so, if that is the price we have to pay for a more daring approach up front then it may be worth it – this was a great win which puts us in pole position to take third spot.

Our form at the moment reflects a trend of Wenger’s era – when his Arsenal machine reaches full speed, few teams can stand in its way. The problems come when things aren’t clicking – we struggle most in adversity. But the team has proved that theory wrong once after recovering from this February’s losses. If we can make that resilience as much of a character trait as the attacking football showed this weekend then we'll have a campaign to remember.

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