By Rob Kelly at Villa Park
Two goals in the space of 59 seconds from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud sent Arsenal back to the summit of the Premier League with a hard-fought victory at Villa Park.
Until Christian Benteke’s diving header reduced their lead in the 76th minute, this had been, to borrow a ‘Wenger-ism’, a highly efficient performance.
Arsenal had controlled proceedings and took the lead when Wilshere finished off a flowing move involving Mesut Ozil and Nacho Monreal in the 34th minute.
Moments later, they doubled their advantage as Wilshere picked out Giroud with a fine ball and the striker fired into the bottom corner from 10 yards.
But Benteke’s goal sent Arsenal hearts racing and a tense finale ensued that would test their character to the fullest.
But, as they have shown numerous times already this season, this team is made of stern stuff and they did not concede a chance of note in the closing stages as they secured a big three points.
Back on top. Job done.
SETTING THE SCENE
Having seen all of their rivals win over the weekend, Arsenal came into game under a degree of pressure. But their record at Villa Park gave grounds for optimism: from their previous 14 visits in the Premier League, the Gunners had won seven and drawn seven. The omens were good.
Arsène Wenger made five changes to the side that beat Tottenham Hotspur so comfortably 10 days earlier. With Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen left out due to respective calf and knee injuries, Mathieu Flamini replaced the Spaniard and Per Mertesacker - in his 100th game for the Club - returned to captain the side. Elsewhere, Wojciech Szczesny took the gloves from Lukasz Fabianski and Ozil came in for Tomas Rosicky.
Giroud spearheaded the attack in place of Theo Walcott, while on the bench there was good news with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs both back in the matchday squad.
Wenger’s side made a confident start to the match, with Giroud - backed by his manager to make a “major impact” during the second half of the season - glancing an early header just wide.
That set the tone, with the visitors dominating possession in the early stages - only to be met by a disciplined and determined Villa backline. As they had found in August’s game at the Emirates, Paul Lambert’s side can be a real threat on the counter and in the 23rd minute Karim El Ahmadi volleyed a good opportunity over the bar.
That let-off would serve as a warning to the Gunners, and they responded in fine style with two goals in less than a minute.
The first was pure Arsenal, with Ozil releasing the marauding Nacho Monreal down the left flank and the Spaniard cutting it back for Wilshere - who scored his first Premier League goal for the Club on this ground in 2010 - to fire home.
The raucous travelling fans were still celebrating when their side doubled their advantage moments later. This time the lively Wilshere turned provider, preying on a mistake by Fabian Delph in midfield to chip the ball into the path of Giroud.
The France international still had work to do and took a touch, held off the despairing challenges of Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark before dispatching his shot beyond Brad Guzan. Clinical.
Villa made the brighter start to the second half, with Leandro Bacuna soon testing Szczesny with a low drive, but Arsenal remained firmly in control.
That opening-day defeat to Lambert’s side almost seemed to belong to a different era as Wilshere and Flamini controlled the midfield, with Santi Cazorla, Ozil and Gnabry buzzing around threateningly behind Giroud.
Much has changed since that game of course, not least the Gunners’ defensive solidity. While Villa pressed and probed at times, Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny stood firm to repel the hosts’ increasingly frantic attacks.
When that central-defensive pairing has completed the 90 minutes together, Arsenal have not lost in 28 games now - although they were not seriously threatened here until Benteke converted Matthew Lowton’s cross from the right.
It set up a nervous denouement for Wenger’s side as the hosts found renewed energy as they attempted to lay siege to Szczesny’s goal.
One Benteke header aside in the 90th minute, they kept chances to a minimum as they held on for a precious three points.
- Monreal 66 Yellow Card
- Gnabry 69
- Wilshere Goal! Yellow Card
- Giroud Goal!
- Rosicky 86 69
- Gibbs 66
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 86
- Baker 21
- El Ahmadi 73 Yellow Card
- Benteke Goal!
- Agbonlahor Yellow Card
- Bacuna 21
- Weimann 73