By Richard Clarke
When is a defeat not a defeat?
It may sound like the set-up for some dodgy Christmas cracker joke but the nature of Sunday's reverse at Manchester City gives the question a real legitimacy right now.
David Silva's goal consigned Arsenal to their first Premier League loss since the North London derby defeat on October 2. In Arsène Wenger's opinion, his side have undergone a metamorphosis in that period; taking 22 points out of 24 certainly gives his argument steely support. And, during that weekend defeat, you could argue the idea was proved more poignantly at the Etihad Stadium than anywhere else this season - even the 5-3 win at Chelsea.
The Stamford Bridge affair was a gunfight against a side that had been misfiring themselves this season. On Sunday, Arsenal went up against a mighty Manchester City team that had suffered only minor blips - and none of them on home turf.
It was game of one key moment and many marginal decisions. Joe Hart was stretched as much as Wojciech Szczesny and the home crowd roared with relief at the final whistle.
So, when is a defeat not a defeat?
When the performance feels full of potential and you follow it with a quick, emphatic win at Aston Villa three days later.
"We want to respond quickly to the defeat at Man City," Wenger told Arsenal Player in his only pre-match interview. "I said after the game that we can take a lot of encouragement therefore it's important we come back.
"We have a bright future but it's important that we keep that spirit and determination so we can go from strength to strength. We are not the same team we were two months ago. And in the next two months of course we want to be different again."
It is interesting that Wenger chose that timespan. In the two months from Wednesday's game, Arsenal will play nine Premier League games and, with the notable exception of Manchester United's visit to Emirates on January 22, none are currently placed higher than Aston Villa in 10th.
The new Arsenal have shown pragmatic efficiency in the last two months. If they continue in that vein, they may be nestled nicely into the top four by the time Tottenham cross North London on February 26.
If all goes well, Wenger might have Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna at his disposal then. At Manchester City, the Frenchman lost Johan Djourou for around three weeks with a groin problem. Alex Song also picked up his fifth booking of the season, so will be suspended for tonight.
With four full backs already sidelined, the manager intimated he might go into the market for a loan signing. However he has three games to negotiate before the window even opens.
"I can use Squillaci, I can use Miquel and I can use Coquelin [as full-backs]," he said. "But let's be frank and honest, no solution will be ideal because whatever we do, two players will have to play out of position. At the moment we are coping well with it and that's why inside the team we have to work as hard as possible so we do not suffer in this period.
Aston Villa come into this game on the back of a difficult run. They have lost three of their last five games, scoring only twice in that time. The loss of poacher Darren Bent (thigh) will hardly help their cause however Gabriel Agbonlahor should be back after missing the 2-0 defeat at home to Liverpool at the weekend.
Alex McLeish built a doughty and overachieving Birmingham side before they went into freefall late last season following his stand-out success - pipping Arsenal in the Carling Cup Final. Crossing England's ‘Second City' has been as hard as you might expect. However Wenger sees potential in the Scotsman's side.
"You cannot judge Villa now, you judge them in April and May," he said. "Last season they finished ninth, where they will finish this season I don't know but if you look at their team-sheet they have good players. So you are always on your toes when you go to Villa.
"Of course they had big disappointments recently and we don't know how that will affect them but we must just go there and play our game as well as we can. We know we have to keep them quiet defensively because they look like they have offensive potential with N'Zogbia, Agbonlahor and with Heskey.
"But they are always passionate games [against Villa]. We know the stadium will be packed and the atmosphere will be good.
"We have been criticised a lot since the beginning of the season but you can say what you want - when we play something always happens. There is always entertainment, even the game on Sunday. It was a game where the two teams went for it.
"That's when football becomes a fantastic sport and, of course, we will do the same at Aston Villa."
Dropping points this time cannot be re-interpreted as anything other than a loss. Tottenham and Chelsea play each other on Thursday and only a win can create the requisite pressure on their main top four rivals.
However the Arsenal of October, November and December has proved resourceful enough to rectify any minor setbacks.
Victory at Villa - followed by two months as good as the last - and that Manchester City defeat will be viewed as a sign of Arsenal's growing strength this season.
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (stomach), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle), Djourou (groin), Song (suspended).
Aston Villa: Herd (ankle), Bent (thigh), Heskey (Achilles), Collins (doubt - knee).
- Arsenal have won six and drawn six of their last 12 trips to Villa. The last time they lost, Wenger's side let slip a two-goal lead at half time.
- Abou Diaby has scored four goals in the Premier League meetings between the side. A figure bettered only by Thierry Henry (10) and Ian Wright (7).
- Arsenal's 4-2 win at Villa Park last season saw Jack Wilshere score his first ever Premier League goal for the Club