Arsenal reversed their usual script against weaker sides, as they started strongly and nabbed a goal before many fans had found their seats. I didn't see who took the first shot, which was blocked by Nathan Baker. The rebound came out to Santi Cazorla, who brilliantly threaded the needle through two sets of legs and past the unsighted Brad Guzan.
Put the ball on net, and good things can happen.
The good guys dominated possession for a while after the goal, but settled into their now-familiar offensive stasis. Eventually, the visitors were able to haul themselves back into the contest and started to create chances of their own.
Frustratingly, both of Villa's most threatening first-half attacks came down our left wing with no one challenging the wide player. Would it have killed our coaching staff to pop the DVD of the Bayern match in sometime in the interim and break down what went wrong?
The first came when the excellent Andreas Weimann bombed down the left wing, with Nacho Monreal much too far off of him. His cross was dead on the mark, but Gabriel Agbonlahor failed to latch on to it. Several minutes later, Wojceich Szczesny was called into action on a similar situation. It was Weimann again who had the run of our left side, and his cross came in to Agbonlahor. The striker's effort was a decent hit, but at a comfortable height for the keeper to save.
Amazingly, Arsenal couldn't muster a response and were at times overrun by one of the poorest sides in the division. The Villains were up to 60% possession at one stage, a spell of pressure that saw Szczesny again called into action to parry a drive by Charles N'Zogbia.
The home side's ball-retention issues were mainly due to an indifferent effort from our midfield, Abou Diaby particularly culpable. Before he hobbled off with an injury for the ten-millionth time, he exhibited several poor touches, misplaced passes and giveaways in the middle of the park.
There were defensive issues as well, Thomas Vermaelen again at the heart of it. A feint from N'Zogbia put the captain on his backside, but thankfully the ball bobbled away from the Villa man before he could fire a shot on goal.
It wasn't all Villa though, as our guys managed a few half-chances. The best of them came from a neat passing move between Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. The Spaniard then sprung Olivier Giroud with a nice one-two, but the angle was tough for the Frenchman. Guzan cut it down further by coming off his line decisively, and he smothered the shot well.
That concluded one of the duller halves of football I've seen. Don't get me wrong, it's not in the same class as South Korea 0-0 Bolivia from the 1994 World Cup or anything - that's always the gold standard in terrible football for me - but it was boring. The second half had a livelier start though, as Giroud and Ciaran Clark both missed gilt-edged chances within the first few minutes.
Inevitably, that spark of life died out and the match resumed its former tedium. Arsenal probed around the edges of the Villa penalty area, but could not find a way through. The match was screaming for a few substitutions or a change in approach, but of course none were forthcoming. As is all too typical this season, our willingness to drift through games was punished by a thoroughly preventable goal.
For some reason, the center-halves continued to press forward despite our slender lead. An attack was broken up, and one of their defenders launched a simple Route One ball forward. Carl Jenkinson failed to clear it, and somehow Weimann was allowed to run unchallenged perhaps 10 yards with the ball. Jenkinson retreated to the wing to prevent a pass to the onrushing wide man, but Nacho Monreal was there and should have pressed. Instead, he retreated and allowed the Austrian all the time he wanted to pick out his shot. Weimann belted one on net. Szczesny saw it the whole way and it was from a fair distance out. However, it looked like he didn't expect the shot, and it slithered through his hands and in.
I hate to say it - I'm as big a fan of the Pole in Goal as anyone - but he is in horrendous form and our lack of an experienced backup pushing him for his place is beginning to cost us. What Lord Ferg over at the Evil Empire has done with De Gea and Lindegaard is instructive.
That finally sparked the boss into action, Lukas Podolski coming on for Jenkinson. Villa had opted for a full-scale bunker at this point, and Jenks had played a bit of a mare anyway.
It was all Arsenal at this point, but I'd be lying if I said I thought a goal was coming. Giroud, another guy woefully out of form and only playing because of our criminally-negligent lack of options, could only direct an open header right at Guzan. Things looked dire, and the mood didn't improve when Podolski couldn't manage to get to a wonderful low cross across the face of goal from Cazorla.
But, our Malaga Connection came through at the last to rescue the points. Wilshere started the move, playing a wonderful chipped pass over the Villa backline. Monreal timed his run to perfection, and he expertly sent a low cross into the penalty area. Cazorla received it in a shocking amount of space, and he made no mistake in lashing a shot into the far corner.
How badly did we need that one?
Theo Walcott came off for Laurent Koscielny to see out the last few minutes, which was done with a minimum of fuss. So, a big win for the men in red, although it wasn't quite as decisive as I'd have liked. Still, the points were the important thing coming off of our latest Worst Week Ever, and now we are just a point behind our nearest and dearest. If they drop points away to West Ham on Monday, we'll come out of this round of fixtures in good shape heading into the North London Derby next week.
That said, Arsenal is going to have to significantly step up their game if they're going to get a result out of that game. I don't think it's hyperbole to say our season hangs in the NLD balance.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 5, Monreal 7, Vermaelen 6, Mertesacker 7, Jenkinson 5 (Podolski 6), Arteta 7, Diaby 5 (Ramsey 7), Cazorla 8, Wilshere 7, Walcott 6 (Koscielny N/A), Giroud 5
Man of the Match: No mystery here. Santi Cazorla.