By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 3-0 ASTON VILLA
A comfortable Arsenal win. Remember those? Arsenal's impressive recent run reached a touchstone on Saturday afternoon, as they brushed aside Aston Villa to tighten their grip on 3rd place in the Premier League.
While swathes of this season have tangibly manifested the pessimism I often feel watching the club, this has been Arsenal's seventh straight league victory. They are the country's form side and are playing with a verve that hasn't been seen at the Emirates for almost 12 months. Also, whisper it, but their elimination from the Champions League and the FA Cup may have proved beneficial for their bid to finish in the top four. The fixture congestion that has afflicted Chelsea and Tottenham is not an issue, and it also seems to have given Arsene Wenger more time on the training pitch to regroup his charges since the painful defeat to Sunderland 5 weeks ago.
The toxic atmosphere that has pervaded home matches this season seems to have been banished. This was a day of sunshine, serenity and comfort. The sun shone in North London - literally and figuratively, as they took control of the game from the first minute. It was a performance reminiscent of occasions when Arsenal could lay claim to being the most accomplished outfit in Britain. There's no doubt that the victory was helped by a moribund Aston Villa. While I empathise with the hand Alex McLeish has been dealt, when his team perform like this you understand why a section of the Villa support want him out.
This is arguably the weakest set of personnel that Wenger has ever had to manage in his time in N5, but there is a much improved spirit in the squad, not seen for about for 4 years. This incarnation of the club is about strength in numbers, even with the coruscating displays of Robin Van Persie, this is no one-man team.
The fulcrum of the first XI comes in the midfield of Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and the rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky. Arteta is the hub of it all, beginning attacking moves in the same fashion that Andrea Pirlo does for Juventus, his experience giving Song an increased licence to attack, allowing Arsenal's "2-1" midfield triangle to tilt on its axis, becoming a "1-2" dynamic.
All three men had fine games, but it is the unseen work from Arteta which deserves the most credit. A great example of this was in the first half. Bacary Sagna - who has proven himself to be the Premier League's best right back - pushed forward to supplement the attack. Arteta instantly dropped into Sagna's position, keeping Arsenal's shape in the event of them losing possession.
With both first choice full-backs restored to the team, Arsenal have balance to their attack again, with Sagna and Kieran Gibbs providing sufficient width to unbalance defences. Gary Neville's superb punditry continued as he analysed Arsenal's opening goal; Rosicky and Gervinho combining to set up Gibbs for his first league goal for the club. Neville was right in stating that you could have been mistaken for watching an Arsenal of recent vintage with Gibbs, Rosicky and Gervinho replacing the roles once filled by Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.
Arsenal then made Villa pay as Carlos Cuellar carelessly gave the ball away. With Stephen Warnock left ballwatching, Song played a delightful ball over the top for Theo Walcott, who finished with aplomb. The evolution of Song as a footballer has been one of Arsenal success stories this season. Walcott's goal was Song's 8th assist of a stellar campaign, impressive for someone who is a nominal "holding" player.
Allied with some slick passing, Arsenal always look at their best when pressing the ball from the front. This was best embodied by Rosicky, who has managed to ease the damage caused to the side by Jack Wilshere's injury problems.
The tempo understandably dropped in the second-half. This would normally be the time when many would expect Arsenal to come apart, like a toilet roll held under a cold tap. But Arsenal held firm, with Wojech Szczesny not having a save to make, and the gloss was put on the victory by a blistering free-kick from Arteta in stoppage time.
Arsenal looked to be a ship that was set to be blown apart as it hit the choppiest of waters, but Arsene Wenger seems to have guided it through the storm, and are eight matches away from ending the season cruising to what - after their dismal start to the season - would have to be determined relative success.
Szczesny - 7, Sagna - 7, Djourou - 7, Vermaelen - 7, Gibbs - 7 (Santos - 6), Arteta - 8, Song - 8, Rosicky - 8, Walcott - 7 (Oxlade-Chamberlain - 7), Van Persie - 7, Gervinho - 6 (Ramsey - 6)
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