Arsenal stayed at the top of the Premier League on Saturday long enough to admire the view but with no time to set up camp. Their main satisfaction lay in proving that they could, after all, hold a two-goal lead at half-time and win by a similar margin in spite of doubts about their ability to do so after Tottenham Hotspur had come from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at the Emirates a week earlier.
True, it did look like Groundhog Day for Arsène Wenger's team when Aston Villa, outmanoeuvred and outwitted in the first half, got a goal back at roughly the same time early in the second half that Spurs had begun their comeback. But the feeling only lasted for the four minutes it took Arsenal to score a third goal and even after Villa's second, 20 minutes from the end, Wenger's players retained their composure and completed a 4-2 victory in stoppage time.
"At half-time you could feel among the players that what happened last week had had an impact in their heads," said Wenger. "When Villa came back to 2-1 it was an interesting test for my team. We could have crumbled or we could score again – and we did the latter. We got a good mental response. This team is very interesting because they are on the same wavelength the way they want to play. But they also fight for each other."
"Very interesting ..." Wenger is starting to sound like the joke German spy who kept cropping up on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. In fact the principal point of interest of the performance at Villa Park was that Arsenal played some of their best football of the season so far without Cesc Fábregas, who continues to be hampered by a hamstring problem that could keep him out until after Christmas.
With Fábregas there is no question of replacing like with like but in terms of influencing a match Samir Nasri is proving a highly acceptable alternative. Whereas Fabregas is a master strategist, Nasri is an inspired improviser, more inclined to play it off the walls and sometimes literally so as he exchanges quick wall passes in the crowded areas near goal. With Andrey Arshavin full of pace and penetration and Marouane Chamakh showing the swift reflexes and close control that bode ill for the future of Nicklas Bendtner at the Emirates, especially when Robin van Persie is playing regularly again, Arsenal could and should have won by more.
Villa have now won only once in nine Premier League games and Saturday showed why. After a poor first half, when they stood off Arsenal and were punished for it, they made a better fist of things in the second but in the end were left to rue a long casualty list that has left Gérard Houllier short of fit bodies. John Carew's strength in the air badly needed to be complemented by another experienced striker, although Ciaran Clark took his two goals smartly enough and might have had a hat-trick.
The only surprising thing about Arsenal's opening goal was that it took them 39 minutes to score it, Arshavin seizing on a cock‑up between Luke Young and James Collins to cut in from the left and squeeze a shot past Brad Friedel. The Villa goalkeeper made the save of the game at the end of the half, turning Chamakh's sharp downward header behind, only to be beaten by the goal of the game when Nasri met Arshavin's corner with a superb volley inside the near post. Chamakh answered Clark's first reply for Villa after being sent through by Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere's diving header provided the final word, following his second, from Chamakh's carefully aimed ball to the far post.
"It's just a shame that when the score got to 2-1 we couldn't keep it like that for 10 minutes because after what happened to Arsenal last week they would have been shaky," said Houllier. "Overall we were beaten by a better team than ourselves – simple as that." For Arsenal things are never that simple.