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Villa overturned by Arsenal’s perfect storm

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 2

van Persie 54 pen, 61 pen, Walcott 56; Dunne 33, Bent 45+1

Arsenal walked off the pitch to opprobrium at half-time and adulation at full-time after a stirring second half comeback put them through to the last 16 of the FA Cup. As abject as they were in going 2-0 down in the first 45 minutes, they showed tremendous spirit in scoring three times in the space of seven minutes to reverse their fortunes against a shell-shocked Aston Villa.

With the FA Cup now representing their best chance of silverware this season, Arsene Wenger made just two changes from the side which lost 2-1 to Manchester United last weekend to complete a hat-trick of consecutive Premier League defeats. Lukasz Fabianski was awarded a rare start in goal, with Francis Coquelin returning from injury to stand in again at right back.

Fabianski

Coquelin – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Vermaelen

Song – Rosicky

Ramsey

Walcott – van Persie – Oxlade-Chamberlain

The two teams have previously been drawn against each other nine times in the FA Cup – most recently in 1983 – with Arsenal leading the head-to-head 6-3. They met in the league at Villa Park just over a month ago, when a late header by Yossi Benayoun secured a 2-1 victory. However, Villa have an enviable record at Emirates Stadium, winning twice and losing just once in five visits. They won 2-1 in the penultimate round last season, with Darren Bent scoring twice in the opening 15 minutes.

Familiar failings resurface

Arsenal’s vulnerabilities were on full display in a first half in which they dominated both possession and opportunities, but fell behind to opponents who fully exploited both their two chances.

A poor first half from Walcott, but he would improve markedly in the second (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The home side started brightly enough, with Shay Given being forced into early saves of long-range efforts by Aaron Ramsey and Thomas Vermaelen. Theo Walcott also sliced horribly wide in yet another ineffectual first half performance which rapidly drew the ire of the Emirates crowd.

The visitors were content to defend solidly and seek opportunities on the break, where the vision of Stiliyan Petrov and the directness of Robbie Keane offered the potential of a goal on the counter.  For all Arsenal’s possession, they lacked the tempo, width and invention to really stretch Villa’s defence, with the absence of attacking full backs on both flanks again all too evident. Too often Arsenal needed a spark of invention in the final third or an injection of pace – too often both were lacking.

Seven first-half corners came to nothing for the hosts, but when Villa finally earned their only corner of the half on 33 minutes they duly scored. Arsenal failed to adequately cover a short corner routine and Keane had plenty of time to measure a cross to the back post where Richard Dunne rose highest among a sea of heads to nod home the opening goal.

Aroused from their state of torpor by the goal and the air of disgruntlement in the crowd, Arsenal upped their effort. Given clutched a shot by Tomas Rosicky at the second attempt, and made further saves from Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But any thoughts of regaining parity before the break were dashed in added-on time as Arsenal were caught out by the simplest of counter-attacks. Petrov picked up a long ball out of defence and moved it on to Stephen Ireland, who picked out Darren Bent‘s run through the heart of Arsenal’s defence. Lukasz Fabianski saved his first shot well, but the England striker made no mistake with his second from a narrow angle.

Cue the boo boys and the all t00 predictable chants of “Send some f***ing money!” from the home crowd.

Seven minutes that rescued Arsenal’s season?

Whatever Wenger said to his side at half-time had an immediate effect, as they opened the second half with a noticeably higher tempo and sense of urgency. They forced two early corners in quick succession, the second of which was met firmly by the head of the giant German defender Per Mertesacker, only for Ireland to react sharply to clear off the line. Ramsey’s cute back-heel sent Walcott scooting into the box, only to be crowded out before he could fashion a shot. And Walcott then returned the compliment, teeing up Ramsey for a toe-poked effort which was too close to Given.

Van Persie scored his 24th and 25th goals of the season from the spot (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Villa were increasingly rocked back on their heels, and sure enough the pressure eventually told. Alex Song slid the ball beyond Carlos Cuellar for Ramsey, who was promptly cleaned out by a sliding tackle from Dunne as he attempted to cover. It was a clear penalty and the defender, who had earlier been booked, was lucky to remain on the pitch. Robin van Persie despatched the penalty to Given’s right as the keeper went the other way.

Arsenal turned the screw, and within two minutes they drew level. Walcott wriggled past Stephen Warnock on the by-line. He attempted to squeeze the ball in at the near post, Given partially blocked it, and as Alan Hutton attempted to clear the ball struck Walcott on the shoulder and rebounded in. Fortunate, perhaps. but all credit to the winger for creating the initial chance and then following in after his own shot.

The winning goal came on the hour from the most unlikely of sources. Laurent Koscielny rambled forward from halfway, exchanged passes with Song and continued on into the area where he was upended by Bent’s clumsy challenge – the proverbial striker’s tackle. Van Persie stepped up once again and as Given dived in the direction of his earlier spot-kick the Dutchman coolly slid the ball the other way to complete the comeback and register his 25th goal of the season.

Arsenal’s perfect storm abated as quickly as it arrived, but it was enough. They had opportunities to extend their advantage, most notably a fierce drive from the revitalised Walcott which Given did well to beat away.

Villa had a couple of half-chances as Arsenal allowed their pace to drop. Petrov beat the offside trap but it was Mertesacker rather than a flat-footed Bent who attacked his dangerous cross to snuff out the danger. And substitute Gary Gardner directed a fine header goalwards from Ireland’s cross, but Fabianski dropped safely on to the ball. In truth, Arsenal saw out the final ten minutes without undue alarm to secure their place in the fifth round, where they will travel to the north-east to play the winner of the replay between Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

It is both too easy and too early to point to the critical seven-minute period as a turning point in Arsenal’s season. But that is just what it might turn out to be. It is up to the team now to build on this.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsene Wenger was delighted by his team’s spirit in the second half:

It was a good test to show that we had the mental qualities to come back. On the other hand it was important that we didn’t panic [at half time]. To concede a goal just on half time for 2-0 was a difficult blow. We had to fight to score three goals and we did it well.

I was very impressed because I felt that when you come out of a bad period like we are, and you are 2-0 down, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can show you have the mental qualities to play for this club. I was very proud that the team came out and showed they are not ready to lie down.

He was far less tetchy than after the United game when asked about the booing from sections of the home crowd at half-time:

I felt they were quite positive compared to last time! Maybe because we are coming out of a bad period [they booed]. I am sad we cannot always keep them happy, the only thing we can do is show the spirit that we showed today.

I just want to do well for this club that I love. I understand that people question my decisions, but I wouldn’t understand if they questioned my commitment and my dedication.

And he hoped the momentum gained from the stirring comeback would carry forward into subsequent matches:

I hope [it means] that we can bounce back in the Premier League as well. I hope it convinces the team we have the required qualities and we can transfer that to the Premier League.

Finally, he was suitably playful and enigmatic when asked whether he would make any signings before the transfer window closes on Tuesday night:

Certainly not. But you never know!

There is not much to analyse tactically that has not been said repeatedly over the past few weeks. Arsenal remain worryingly suspect against set-pieces and quick counter-attacks, but other than the two goals generally coped well with Villa’s limited attacking threat.

Going forward, there was a worrying lack of tempo and creativity in the first half, with van Persie totally isolated up front. Again, nothing new there. But it suddenly re-emerged in the first 15 minutes of the second half, when Arsenal’s pace and movement overwhelmed Villa. Their wide attackers were key to this resurgence, with Oxlade-Chamberlain more involved as Vermaelen increasingly pushed up behind him, and Walcott as bright and confident in the second half as he was unassertive in the first. Song, Ramsey and Rosicky controlled midfield for large portions of the game. It was a brief but potent passage of dominance, but arguably the most convincing 15 minutes of Arsenal’s entire season.

More is required if the team are to claw their way back into the Champions League places and advance further in both the FA Cup and Champions League, but this was a steadying – and much needed – result to dispel some of the gloom which has descended on the Emirates over the past month. They will have a chance to build further momentum with a tricky visit to a resurgent Bolton on Wednesday night.

Arsenal man of the match: Robin van Persie. Two coolly-taken penalties that turned the tide in Arsenal’s favour in the critical period after half-time. But in truth the second half comeback was a total team performance, just as the first half had been a total team failure.

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

4 Responses to Villa overturned by Arsenal’s perfect storm

  1. MistaKen says:

    I’ll enjoy this while I can. Please, please,please Arsenal don’t go 2 goals behind again. It’s suicide

    • Tim says:

      It’s certainly not good for the heart! But, oddly, I think we may get more of a boost out of yesterday’s 3-2 than if we had just strolled to a routine 3-0 win. Not that we’ve had many of the latter recently …

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