We weren’t as good against Aston Villa as were against Manchester City, but when you score a late goal to claim all three points, who cares?
At this stage of the season, obviously it helps if performances are good, but ultimately with games coming thick and fast, it’s just about getting the job done. With the moving of the Wolves game, we’re going to head into a period of three games in less than seven days. Players will get tired physically and mentally, so maintaining a fluent style of play will be tough. Grinding out a win at Aston Villa was a great way to set us up for the hectic festive period.
As I mentioned in my last blog, we could easily have slipped into a bad run of form following the Manchester City game. We had to somehow find a way of getting a result against Villa, otherwise we’d be playing even more catch up football during the Christmas period, and be at risk of other clubs getting away from us. It may not have been pretty, but that’s what we did. No-one would have predicted Yossi Benayoun to be the man to get on the end of a corner, but we’re all grateful he appeared at the back post.
The match at Villa Park was the sort of game we’d have dropped points in during recent seasons. The added experience to the squad is paying off. Benayoun’s opportunities have been limited this season, however he made a real impact from the bench and was in the right place at the right time. That wasn’t a coincidence. Tomas Rosicky also steadied our performance when appearing from the dug-out. His introduction allowed Mikel Arteta to drop deeper and dictate the play more that when Frimpong was playing. Even Andrey Arshavin looked livelier off the bench. All three will be needed over the coming couple of weeks as some of the starters looked tired, so it’s reassuring to have more experience in the squad that can change games.
Benayoun in particular deserves a lot of credit. I was initially sceptical able his signing, however he’s looked good in every game he’s played for us this season. He’s clever with the ball and keeps possession well. I’m surprised how he’s been under used, however now I think he’ll come to the fore with the fixture congestion meaning we’ll have to rotate, and then when we miss Gervinho whilst he’s playing in the African Cup of Nations. He’s a good option as a tricky winger, or sitting in behind the striker. I think he’s got a big part to play in the rest of this season, however that header alone had made his loan signing worthwhile. If he keeps making good contributions, signing him up permanently should be done sooner rather than later.
Robin van Persie wasn’t at his best, yet still scored and grabbed an assist. His penalty would have been impossible to save for almost any goalkeeper, and as much as it was a surprise for the team to score a header, to have a good cross come in from a corner was also slightly unusual. Our overall performance might not have been great, but the finer details that van Persie is so good at helped get us over the line and claim the points. Also, how we didn’t get a penalty when he was booked for diving I’ll never quite know. If that isn’t contact in the box I’m not sure what is.
Hopefully he’ll at least equal Alan Shearer’s Premier League record for goals scored in a calendar year. On paper, only needing two from two is very doable for the Dutchman, however with the games coming quickly, I doubt he’ll start both of them. As we face Fulham just two days after the OPR match on New Years’ Eve, I think van Persie will be rested for the final match of 2011. It’ll be a last chance for Chamakh or Park to prove themselves before we surely sign a striker in January.
Whilst winning the match was the major, and most important, aspect of the game, there were some worrying signs. I’m not sure if Ignasi Miquel was injured, or just wasn’t selected, but our defence still has a slight make shift look about it. Francis Coquelin looked shaky early on, but grew into the game at right back. Hopefully he won’t become a permanent fixture there as he wants to be known as a midfielder.
Also from a defensive point of view, it was a disappointing goal to concede. It was just a punt down field, and having seen us be more solid when defending those situations this season, it was a surprise to see Villa score from it. Apart from when he’s injured, we saw that Thomas Vermaelen isn’t a machine and can make a mistake. His header back to Mertesacker was slightly short, and the German was unlikely to cut it out. Had Mertesacker committed to trying to win the ball, I think he’d have ended up fouling Albrighton and possibly getting sent off. It was annoying to concede, but closing the game out with ten men would have made things very difficult.
Generally, we weren’t as sharp going forward as we have been in recent weeks, with players looking fatigued. However I’m not too worried about the performance, as the desire and team spirit dragged us through the game. Some credit must go to Aston Villa as well. Most fans, myself included, expected them to not put up too much of a fight following some their recent displays, however they showed more resilience than they had done against Liverpool.
Our next game is against Wolves on the 27th December, after the club decided to move the game back because of tube driver strikes on the London Underground making it difficult for staff and supporters to get to the game, which was originally scheduled for Boxing Day. The change of date shouldn’t make too much difference to the players, although given it’s a traditional day for English football, we won’t have had a Boxing Day fixture since 2008.
I expect Arsene Wenger to make changes for the match, with the likes of Walcott, Ramsey and Gervinho looking like they could do with a rest. As shown at Villa Park, we have some more experienced players who are hungry to perform well, so hopefully they’ll get the chance to do that from the start. Also, I’m sure I’m not the only Gooner hoping for Arsene to unleash the Ox over Christmas.
The team will go into Christmas in a much better frame of mind after the Villa win. Even if we don’t produce any Christmas crackers in the next two weeks, so long as we get nine points, no one will be complaining. Have a great Christmas Gooners!