March 1, 2013
There's a line in Richard Clarke's match report from Saturday's 2-1 win over Aston Villa that nicely sums up the last few weeks.
"Despite their problems in the knockout competitions, Arsenal have now taken 13 points out of a possible 15 in the Premier League."
The win wasn't easy. And despite dominating throughout the match, it didn’t feel certain until Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle. Except perhaps after six minutes when Santi Cazorla threw Arsenal's penchant for falling behind early out the window. After collecting the ball from Jack Wilshere at the left corner of the penalty area, the diminutive Spaniard fired into traffic. The pass/shot hybrid rebounded straight back to him, so he let loose again, this time finding the back of the net.
With that, manof the match Cazorla hit the double figure mark in goals – all in the Premier League – and Arsenal looked like they would run away with the three points. Except… we didn't. Villa created a number of chances on the counter-attack and we couldn’t quite break through their defense. The second half was a similar story. Arsenal ran the show, and Villa looked for answers on the counter. And in the 68th minute they found one when Andreas Weimann scored on a long-range drive against the run of play.
Looking to respond, Arsène Wenger put Lukas Podolski on for Carl Jenkinson and Arsenal again went into high gear. Less than 10 minute after the change Arsenal scored on what looked like a rehearsed play. Mikel Arteta slid the ball across the pitch to Wilshere, who lofted a pass over the top to Nacho Monreal. The left-back's one-touch pass found a rushing Santi Cazorla who slammed it past Brad Guzan for his second of the afternoon.
Cue the praise. Per Mertesacker called Cazorla "the perfect footballer." According to the German, Santi "takes his chances with his technique and his feeling.” Meanwhile Arteta pointed out a reason why Cazorla has been playing so well in recent weeks. “He seems to be comfortable when he plays off the left. He’s got a lot of freedom and he causes problems to the other teams because we can use the extra man in midfield."
That versatility has become a major weapon. Tactical expert Micahel Cox broke down Santi's performance and his conclusion paints the picture perfectly: "Cazorla’s ability to pop up unnoticed in different zones is proving vital, in terms of both creativity and goalscoring."
As for Arsène Wenger, the manager was beaming with pride over his team's response to Villa's equalizer, although he said he regretted the missed opportunities of "an unbelievable number of chances."
“There was room to score many more goals," the manager said. "But when you go through a bad spell like we’ve had, the most important thing is to win."
Indeed. It was a vital three points. The win did not move Arsenal any further up the table, but we are now firmly in striking distance of not only the top four, but third place as well. As Wenger noted after the game, “Chelsea are only two points ahead and go to Man City. I'm not sure it will only be a fight with Tottenham. It could be a tight fight until the end." And were it not for Tottenham's late win over West Ham on Monday, it would be even tighter.
Arsenal now have three straight wins and a five-game unbeaten run, but don’t think for a second that the players are getting complacent. Despite the win, Mikel Arteta was focused on the mistakes that led to Aston Villa's goal. “When they equalised, I could not believe it,” he said. “They did not even go through the middle of the park in the second half. The first time they did, on the break from our corner, they scored a goal." He knows that to continue to push up the table, the squad must eradicate the small, but costly mistakes that have haunted them this season.
And Wilshere for one, very much wants to keep pushing up the table. “We have to keep this run going. We’ve got a big game next weekend. It’s big for us, big for the fans and as a player, those are the games you want to be involved in."
More on that in a moment. There is some other noteworthy business to mention. First, Arsenal released the half-year financial numbers this week. Basically, things look quite sound from a fiscal perspective, and can really only provide a basis for optimism as we head toward the close season.
If solid financials don't make your heart swell, this might. The Club announced that a new statue will be joining those of those of Herbert Chapman, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry, which were unveiled in December of 2011: The Iceman Cometh. A bronze figure of Dennis Bergkamp will be unveiled before the start of the new season. And is Wenger noted, it couldn’t go to a more deserving player.
Looking ahead, it's back to business on Sunday as Arsenal make the grueling 3.8 mile trek up the Seven Sisters Road. It's North London derby time and this one is about as big as any since the last time "We Won the League at White Hart Lane." This time its about even more than the rivalry. “To beat them and get into the top four and the Champions League, which is our aim for the season, is essential," said Cazorla.
He will play a big role in the game, as will his midfield compatriots. The battle in the middle of the park is sure to be key. Gareth Bale has been in excellent form recent games, and the addition of Lewis Holtby to Spurs' ranks creates a very different challenge than the team we beat 5-2 in November.
Bacary Sagna's injury means Carl Jenkinson will be tasked with keeping the Welshman in check. The good news there is that Jenko has the pace and endurance to keep up with Bale for 90 minutes. But even if he does mark him well and he gets some help from the midfield, a foul or two in a dangerous position could make it a moot point.
On the other hand, Spurs will be missing a couple of key players in Sandro and Clint Dempsey. Parker is filling in and has had a rough season. It could be another situation where Arsenal players float in from the flanks to try to take advantage. Hopefully we can get on the scoresheet early and often, because we will likely need more goals than we have gotten of late to get a result.
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