Benayoun’s late winner brings Arsenal Christmas cheer

Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2

Albrighton 54; van Persie 17 pen, Benayoun 87

An unconvincing Arsenal escaped from Villa Park with all three points after a late winner from a most unlikely source: the head of on-loan substitute Yossi Benayoun. The result was tough on an Aston Villa side who ruffled the visitors throughout and dominated most of the second half, but ultimately paid for a lack of cutting edge up front and a defensive lapse by Gabriel Agbonlahor, who let Benayoun run in unopposed to score the winner.

With Johan Djourou adding to the injury woes and Alex Song serving a one-match suspension, Arsène Wenger was forced to reshuffle the side which started Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Manchester City. Midfielder Francis Coquelin became the fifth Arsenal player to start at right back in the league this season, while Emmanuel Frimpong stepped into a holding role in the middle.

Szczęsny

Coquelin – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Frimpong – Arteta

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Last season a 4-2 win at Villa Park in late November sent Arsenal top of the table, at least for a few hours, as Jack Wilshere scored his first Premier League goal.

34 and counting

Playing with far more vigour than they did in a tame loss to Liverpool at the weekend, Villa had the better of a frantic start to the game. Gabriel Agbonlahor missed a chance to give the home side an early lead from a corner when his powerful header was directed too close to Wojciech Szczęsny, allowing the Polish goalkeeper to beat it away with a sharp reflex save.

Van Persie tied Henry's calendar year record from the penalty spot (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal struggled all over the field, with Francis Coquelin being repeatedly exposed by Charles N’Zogbia. With passes regularly going astray in midfield, the visitors’ front three barely had a sniff of the ball in the first quarter of an hour. All that changed, however, after Villa failed to clear their lines from a corner. Theo Walcott wriggled past Ciaran Clark, who tugged his shirt. Referee Jonathan Moss pointed immediately to the spot, from where Robin van Persie slammed the ball past Brad Guzan into the roof of the net. It was the Dutchman’s 34th league goal of 2011, tying Thierry Henry’s Arsenal record and two behind Alan Shearer’s all-time Premier League record.

Van Persie nearly returned the compliment two minutes later, playing Walcott in over the top. But Guzan raced off his line to block the England winger’s attempted lob with his shoulder.

However, Villa forced their way back into the game as their energetic approach disrupted Arsenal’s flow. With Aaron Ramsey looking off the boil and Emmanuel Frimpong struggling to assert himself, Villa began to take charge. Stephen Ireland nearly connected with a Marc Albrighton cross at the near post. And on the stroke of half-time Barry Bannan saw his free kick bounce off the roof of the net.

In between, Ramsey should have done better after being played through the middle by van Persie, but the Welsh captain screwed his shot wide from the edge of the box with Walcott racing through unmarked alongside him. However, there was no mistaking the fact that Villa had been the better side – or at least the less bad one – for most of the half.

Late lapse costs Villa dear

The second half started in much the same vein the first had ended. Villa were lively and energetic, if lacking in quality up front. Arsenal looked disjointed and lethargic, too often second to every 50:50 ball.

The home side threatened a deserved equaliser, but received a large dose of help from Arsenal’s back four. Thomas Vermaelen sold Per Mertesacker short with a cross-field header. The German was slow to react and appeared to stumble slightly, allowing Albrighton to nip in, steal the ball and slide it through the advancing Szczęsny’s legs. In addition to levelling the game, it was also the 20,000th goal in Premier League history.

Villa’s joy was nearly short-lived. Arsenal immediately forced a corner and Mertesacker almost atoned for his error with a shot which was well saved by Guzan. Nonetheless the home side continued to enjoy territorial and possession advantage, but Arsenal stood firm against the pressure and Szczęsny was largely untroubled.

Benayoun's first league goal for Arsenal could not have come at a better time (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Ultimately, however, it was the introduction of experience off the bench which helped turn the match back the visitors’ way. Tomáš Rosický replaced the ineffective Frimpong midway through the half and immediately brought greater incision to Arsenal’s passing in the final third. And Andrey Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun joined the fray for the final ten minutes. The Russian saw a decent effort from the edge of the area deflected behind for a corner. A minute later, van Persie swung over another corner across the face of the six-yard box, where the Israeli midfielder peeled off the back of the inattentive Agbonlahor to plant a free header into the back of the net.

Alan Hutton stupidly saw red after receiving two injury-time bookings – the second for a needless scything challenge on Vermaelen – but the dismissal was immaterial to the result. Despite a poor performance, Arsenal had done just enough to win when it really mattered.

Three points was more than Arsenal deserved from their overall play, and yet they had failed to gain any points from a vastly superior performance at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. At this point of the season, however, results are all that matter, and this victory brought Arsenal back to within touching distance of the top four. Meanwhile Villa will be starting to look nervously over their shoulders as they slipped to within five points of the relegation zone. For Arsenal, Christmas cheer; Villa will be hoping that Santa leaves them something under the Christmas tree to halt a run which has now seen them earn just eight points from their last ten games.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger acknowledged the tough battle that Villa had given his side:

In the first half we controlled the game quite well and in the second half when they came back to 1-1 we had quite a difficult period. Then we stabilised the game and in the last 15 minutes you could feel we were on top again.

I can only congratulate Villa – they played well, gave everything and again it was a very intense game. In the end we got three very late points that are vital for us. We were a bit unlucky on Sunday and today maybe a bit lucky. Overall it was important to re-start with a win tonight. But if Villa continue to play like that then they will go up in the table, they had an outstanding game.

He praised his team’s attitude:

Our spirit is exceptional and that’s why we came from a bad start to the season to such a strong run. You could see that some legs were a bit jaded from Sunday, and some minds in the speed of the decision-making. But we still kept going and there is an exceptional attitude and spirit in the side.

And in response to questions about a possible move in the transfer window following Kieran Gibbs‘ fresh injury setback, he concluded:

I don’t know yet, it depends on what happens to Gibbs. Vermaelen does quite well at left back, it is not the position where he feels happiest but he does it with a good spirit. On the right side tonight I played a midfielder [Coquelin], who I feel has done quite well.

As performances go, this was both encouraging and discouraging in approximately equal measure. It was encouraging in the sense that Arsenal were able to eke out a win even when playing badly, and with several players noticeably below their physical peak. But it was also discouraging because it is clear that an inability to rest members of the front six is starting to take its toll just as we enter the busiest stretch of the domestic campaign, and that the backups do not possess enough quality in depth to pick up the slack.

As in the game at City, Arsenal’s problems here stemmed from a lack of width. With Villa more than matching them in the centre, the Gunners struggled to supply Walcott and the frustrating Gervinho consistently on the flanks. And with a centre back (Vermaelen) and a midfielder (Coquelin) manning the full back positions, they rarely provided an overlap down the flanks. In particular Coquelin, who struggled to contain N’Zogbia and picked up a booking in the first half, rarely ventured beyond halfway throughout the game. As a result, this encouraged Villa’s full backs Hutton and Stephen Warnock to press forward themselves, further exacerbating the problem.

In midfield Mikel Arteta was busy and efficient as usual, but Ramsey’s form and energy levels continued to show the signs of decline which have been increasingly apparent in recent weeks. He looks urgently in need of a break. Frimpong struggled both with and without the ball, and his passing was particularly errant.

The one constant remains the form of van Persie. Although not perhaps on the hot streak he was on a month or so ago, he remains Arsenal’s most potent scoring threat and is just as vital for his willingness to drop deep and wide to link up play as he is for his goals.

After back-to-back away games, Arsenal have the benefit of playing at home twice over the Christmas period. They are scheduled to play Wolves on Boxing Day (although this may be postponed 24 hours depending on the outcome of a planned Tube disruption), followed by QPR on New Year’s Eve. Both are eminently winnable games, but Wenger faces some tricky decisions about how to rotate his limited options. Last season he effectively played two different sides, resulting in two dropped points at Wigan. With the race for a top four spot more intense this season than ever, he can ill afford to miscalculate again.

Arsenal man of the match: Laurent Koscielny. Solid as a rock, despite being asked to play in a different position or with a different central partner in almost every game in recent weeks. He is fast developing into one of the most dependable defenders in the Premier League.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

11 Responses to Benayoun’s late winner brings Arsenal Christmas cheer

  1. derenzie says:

    Great read, excellent analysis.

  2. Sheree says:

    Thanks for your generous comments about the Villa. I just wanted us to play better than we did against Liverpool. We certainly did that, particularly in the second half, but were undone by lapses in concentration and set pieces.

    Yesterday’s match amply demonstrated what separates the better teams from the also-rans; the former grind out results even when they’re not at the top of their game.

    • Tim says:

      Ironically, even though this Arsenal side lacks the attacking flair of previous versions, the one thing it has that they lacked is the ability to win games like last night. We no longer blow teams away with regularity, and so much of our recovery of recent months has been built on narrow wins. The side that finished last season would almost certainly have found a way to conceded rather than score a late winner.

      In truth, it was a pretty lousy game. Guzan made a few good stops, but other than Agbonlahor’s early header I can’t remember Szczesny having to make a meaningful save. Your midfield was energetic while ours looked that critical 1% off the pace. Without Bent it’s difficult to see where your regular supply of goals would come from. In fact, Villa without Bent this season remind me rather a lot of Sunderland without Bent after he left last season. As much as the ability to ‘win ugly’ is a characteristic of good sides, so is the ability to carve out goals in games of relatively few chances. Bent certainly gives you that, just as van Persie does for us.

      I don’t really see Villa as anything more than mid-table this season – somewhere between 9th and 14th, I’d say – but you’re certainly a couple of levels above the likes of Bolton, Blackburn etc.

      • Sheree says:

        Your assessment is spot on as always. Thanks for comparing Bent to Van Persie. Given a free choice I’d take the latter over the former. However, given Villa’s loss of talent in recent seasons, an entire midfield (Milner, Barry, Young and Downing), Bent probably serves us better.

  3. georgerodger says:

    Yes Tim .Lovely stuff I must come more often?
    Are you on twitter?
    I am @blackburngeorge.If you are let me knowand we can banter.

  4. georgerodger says:

    Sorry .just noticed your twitter link

  5. georgerodger says:

    OOPS no I haven’t.

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