Aston Villa vs. Arsenal: Wilshere’s class offsets lack of penetration

   Two great plays from Wilshere led Arsenal to a 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Monday. It wasn’t a convincing victory. The Gunners performed well in the first half before showing a bit of complacency in the second half. But in the end, what really matters is that they stay top of the Premier League after 21 rounds. It was quite a tricky match. First, there was the memory of the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa on opening day that led to a revolt from the fans and to questions about the team’s quality and ambitions. And second, Manchester City and Chelsea put pressure on Arsenal by winning their matches during the weekend.

A quick passing game

   Lambert’s game plan with a 5-3-2 formation was clear: park the bus and rely on Agbonlahor’s pace and Benteke’s finishing to hit the visitors on the fast break. The key for the Gunners was to stretch the Villans’ defense by avoiding unnecessary touches and moving the ball to the wings. Giroud outjumped two defenders in the fifth minute to head a cross from Sagna but he missed the target from eight yards. Three minutes later, a slight shove from Vlaar prevented the France striker from connecting with another cross from Sagna. That looked like a soft penalty and referees are usually reluctant to give one early in the match.

   However, the referee made a key decision in the opening minute by booking El Ahmadi for throwing an elbow at Wilshere. He basically told the Villans he would not turn a blind eye if they tried to rough up Wilshere. The England midfielder broke the deadlock in the 34th by burying the ball into the bottom corner. Ozil released Monreal down the left flank and the Spaniard cut the ball back for Wilshere, who took a touch before scoring from 15 yards. A minute later, Wilshere pressed high up the pitch to steal the ball from Delph. Giroud then controlled Wilshere’s clipped pass, benefited from two lucky bounces, and fired through Lowton’s legs to beat Guzan with a low diagonal strike for a 2-0 lead.

Wilshere’s maturation

   Wilshere is maturing like Ramsey did in the first half of the season. That improvement could prove crucial in the title race. Arsenal would not hold the top spot without Ramsey’s goals and assists. We will miss Walcott for the rest of the season. Obviously, no one in the squad can match Walcott’s pace. But some players can step up and score goals to compensate for his absence.

   Wilshere still needs to improve his defensive game. Delph took advantage of Wilshere’s poor first touch in the 13th to win the ball but dragged his shot wide. Young players are often unaware of dangers near their own boxes. Ramsey gave away two goals this season with stupid turnovers. It takes a bit of time and experience for creative players to balance their defensive and offensive duties.

   The main difference with last season is that Wilshere is more efficient. He keeps it simple and does not waste his energy in useless take-ons. Let’s hope Wilshere won’t revert to his old ways. The England midfielder created Arsenal’s scarce chances in the second half. He fed Gibbs, who set up Giroud for a curling shot that sailed wide in the 73rd. In stoppage time, Wilshere played Cazorla in and the Spaniard had his effort from a tight angle saved by Guzan.

Gnabry’s tactical intelligence

   Wenger started Gnabry on the right wing since Oxlade-Chamberlain is not sharp yet. Expectations were high after the German’s outstanding performance against Tottenham in the FA Cup. But let’s not forget Gnabry is just 18 and players only become consistent around the age of 23-24. His performance on Monday night was average: no big mistake, but no significant contribution either. Yet, a quality any coach would notice is Gnabry’s sound positional play and decision-making.

   Aston Villa had two chances in the first half. Sagna gave Delph too much space for a cross in the 22nd but El Ahmadi volleyed over the bar. Then Monreal made a cynical foul, tripping Agbonlahor, to kill a dangerous counterattack in the 32nd. The Gunners seemed to have the match under control in the second half until Cazorla’s sloppy pass in the 76th. Lowton intercepted the ball and made a cross that eluded Koscielny and Mertesacker but found Benteke at the far post who scored with a diving header.

   Mertesacker was angry with Cazorla and it’s easy to understand why. Cazorla tried to be too clever even though he was surrounded by two Villans. When there’s an obvious counterattacking opportunity, it’s OK to attempt a complicated pass. But that was not the case and Cazorla should have opted for a clearance. Aston Villa put Arsenal under pressure in the closing minutes. Delph’s low drive lacked power to beat Szczesny in the 82nd. But another long ball from Lowton nearly exposed the Gunners’ defense in the 90th. Benteke got ahead of Sagna only to head the ball straight into Szczesny’s arms.


   There are currently two worries for Arsenal. The first one is injuries. Besides Walcott, the Gunners were also missing Ramsey, Arteta, Vermaelen and Bendtner. Now Monreal and Rosicky could join the disabled list. Monreal might have a broken foot after Vlaar blocked his shot in the 57th. Gibbs replaced the Spanish leftback in the 66th. Then Rosicky was sent on for Gnabry in the 69th but did not stay long on the field as Agbonlahor threw an elbow at the Czech midfielder. The referee did not spot the foul since he did not blow the whistle. Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench in the 86th to replace Rosicky, who has a broken nose. I guess it’s a blessing in disguise to have a weakened squad while dealing with a soft schedule and facing weak or average sides.

   The second worry is our lack of penetration. Last season, Walcott and Podolski were the two players providing verticality. This season, we’ve mostly relied on runs from Ramsey and Wilshere to tear apart our opponents’ defense. Podolski is not sharp yet, according to the manager, while Gnabry is too young to bear such a burden. If Wenger can hire a player during the winter transfer window, that has to be a striker with a lot of pace. In the closing minutes at Villa Park, Giroud was too slow to chase our clearances, while someone like Walcott would have been more helpful.

The need for a pacy forward

   The manager has very few options at centerforward. Podolski’s performances as a lone striker have been poor. Walcott also struggled back to goal but at least he was fast. Sanogo is recovering from a back injury and is no first-team material. He’s still too raw and should be loaned out to get some playing time and hone his skills. Basically, we only have Giroud and Bendtner as decent centerforwards. They’re pretty much the same type of player: slow and technically average but physical, strong in the air and able to hold the ball up. We clearly need something different.

   It’s weird to realize that we had the opposite for years with Henry and Van Persie, who were fast, technically gifted and strong in the air. In a nutshell, all-around forwards. Both started their careers as wingers before Wenger converted them into pure strikers. Of course, it will be difficult to make an interesting deal because of the World Cup this summer. Players are reluctant to move unless they have the certainty to get a lot of playing time. But a smart transfer could be the difference between winning the league and finishing second.


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