By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Santi Cazorla scored five minutes from time to hand Arsenal a crucial victory over Aston Villa on Saturday.
Nacho Monreal raced up the left and squared for his compatriot to gleefully convert his second goal of the game.
Cazorla’s sixth-minute strike had given Arsenal the advantage early on.
They withstood significant Villa pressure in the first half but dominated after the restart. So Andreas Weimann’s long-range drive past Wojciech Szczesny came strongly against the run of play in the 68th minute.
Nerves were starting to take hold when Cazorla caressed the winner into the far corner of the net as the seconds ticked by.
With Tottenham and, potentially, Everton coming up in their next two games, Wenger’s men could not afford to slip up.
And they did not.
The victory takes Arsenal just a point behind their north London rivals, who face a tricky trip to West Ham on Monday.
Frankly, Saturday afternoon's win should have been more comfortable but, after the defeats to Blackburn and Bayern, it was still a rejuvenating victory for Wenger’s men.
Despite their problems in the knockout competitions, Arsenal have now taken 13 points out of a possible 15 in the Premier League.
The manager made four changes from the side defeated by Bayern in midweek. He switched both his full-backs – Carl Jenkinson came in for the injured Bacary Sagna Monreal for Thomas Vermaelen.
However the Belgian retained his place in the side. He moved to centre back and Laurent Koscielny dropped down to the bench.
Elsewhere Abou Diaby and Olivier Giroud replaced Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski respectively.
Villa arrived fourth from bottom but fresh from decent results against Everton and West Ham.
Before kick-off, Wenger had predicted a “typical Premier League” game. If that meant pace, passion and chances, then the Frenchman was spot on.
Poor starts have been Arsenal’s Achilles heel this season. But this time, the home side seemed determined to make early inroads.
Cazorla had a dig from range then Jack Wilshere broke clear and stung the hands of Brad Guzan at the near post.
The pair would combine for the opening goal in the sixth minute.
The Englishman nudged the Spaniard into space on the left of the area. His first effort was left-footed and came back off Nathan Baker. Cazorla collected a drilled a low shot into the far corner with his right.
It was the midfielder’s 10th goal of the campaign. The first time he has reached double figures in a decade as a pro.
Not since Thierry Henry in 1999/2000 had an Arsenal player reached that landmark in his debut season.
Arsenal would push for an immediate second but Villa and Charles N’Zogbia set up Gabriel Agbonlahor to crash a shot towards Szczesny. The Polish keeper beat the ball away.
Then, on the quarter-hour, Weimann teased Monreal on the right and his probing low ball narrowly evaded the outstretched leg of Agbonlahor, who had timed his near-post run to perfection.
Ten minutes later, Weimann raced down the right once again and his cutback was met by N’Zogbia 10 yards out. The powerful effort was pawed away by Szczesny at the near post.
By now the pattern of the game was set - Arsenal would attack, Villa would counter at pace. The home side had the goal but the visitors were having the better opportunities.
However Wenger’s men would respond late in the half.
Just past the half-hour, Diaby exchanged passes with Giroud and set up Walcott. The Englishman curled his effort just over the bar.
Five minutes from the break, Giroud and Cazorla played a delightful one-two for the Frenchman to force a fine save out of Guzan.
The striker would have a shot charged down seconds later after Arteta's effort was blocked.
Arsenal had started and ended the half well but, in between, Villa had given them plenty to thinking about.
The visitors nearly grabbed an equaliser in the opening seconds of the second period as Ciaran Clark headed over from Ashley Westwood’s corner.
And, on the hour, Agbonlahor nodded wide from Weimann’s deep cross. But the rest was all Arsenal.
Giroud and Cazorla had a couple of decent chances, Wilshere sent a rasping effort just over the bar.
In the 61st minute, Wenger brought on Ramsey for Diaby. By now, Arsenal were starting to camp in the Villa goalmouth. The visitors were peppered with crosses and shots from all angles.
In the light of that, it is an understatement to say the equaliser came against the run of play.
In the 68th minute, a desperate clearance was nodded down by Jenkinson to N’Zogbia racing into the centre circle. He fed Weimann, who strode forward and let fly from distance.
The effort beat Szczesny and flew in. It was a deeply disappointing goal to concede at any time but particularly after such dominance.
In response to the goal, Wenger threw on Podolski for Jenkinson. The manager was going for it.
Walcott curled over a brace of corners. From the first, Giroud saw a header tipped over, from the second, Mertesacker flicked an effort wide.
Tension was starting to rise as Walcott’s tantalising effort flew unconverted across the face of the area.
Then, in the 85th minute, Cazorla raced forward to convert a low cross from the Monreal.
The midfielder raced into the crowd by way of celebration. Everyone at Emirates knew the importance of that goal.
Villa could not muster much of a reposte. Arsenal were simply happy to hold on.
Despite some nerves, this victory means Wenger’s men have form behind them in the Premier League.
If they can continue that run at White Hart Lane next week they can be increasingly confident of finishing in the Champions League places.
- Jenkinson 76
- Cazorla Goal! Goal!
- Diaby 61 Yellow Card
- Walcott 90
- Koscielny 90
- Ramsey 61
- Podolski 76
- Lowton Yellow Card
- Clark (C)
- N'Zogbia 82
- Delph Yellow Card
- Weimann Goal!
- Westwood 72
- Ahmadi 72
- Dawkins 82