Arsenal are back on top of the Premier League, taking in the view and showing no signs of a side that is going to wilt any time soon. True, Arsène Wenger's team had to survive some anxious moments during the final exchanges but an equaliser for Aston Villa would hardly have told an accurate story of how the game had gone. Arsenal were considerably the more accomplished team and perhaps it was just a little bit of complacency that crept in towards the end.
They had led through goals from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud in the space of 59 seconds in the first half and it had looked like being a freewheeling win until Christian Benteke, almost out of nowhere, reminded Villa Park that he still understands the art of goalscoring.
Benteke's 76th-minute header was his first goal since September, originating from the kind of carelessness from Santi Cazorla that suggested Arsenal already thought the game was won. Paul Lambert's side gave everything and afterwards Villa's manager could at least dwell on those moments and try to argue, in manager-speak, there were plenty of positives.
Yet it was a deception, for the most part. Villa were flat and uninspiring, on the wrong end of a game of keep-ball, and, if Lambert's move for Grant Holt of Wigan Athletic smacks a little of desperation, it is because their record of eight home goals in the league is as bad as it gets in all four divisions. For Arsenal it would have been a grievous setback if they had allowed a side with these shortcomings to pinch a late equaliser.
Wenger was not sure afterwards whether his team had been "too confident or too cautious" in the second half, plumping for the latter and arguing his players should have done more to make it 3-0 and kill the game. A team can be lulled into that kind of casualness when the opposition offer little of note and maybe it will be a lesson for Arsenal over the coming months. It was rare to see an away side with so much control of the ball and Wenger was not being arrogant to feel they could have found another goal if they had looked hard enough.
As it was, there was still plenty to admire in the form of Wilshere's performance, Giroud's ability to bring colleagues into the game and the togetherness that was needed to see out the win after Benteke's stooping header. However much Lambert talked up his side, there were also long spells when Villa Park was mired in dissatisfaction. At half-time the crowd booed when the stadium announcer informed them the competition prize was a season-ticket. Later there were pointed cheers when Karim El Ahmadi was substituted, having played poorly. Benteke's goal arrived shortly afterwards, after Cazorla had presented the ball to Matthew Lowton, and completely changed the mood.
The paradox was that Villa, with so little of the ball, could also reflect on a couple of decent opportunities before that devastating little period when Wenger's players suddenly turned their superiority into goals.
Unfortunately for the home side El Ahmadi could not hit the target on either occasion and the old rampaging figure of Benteke spent the first hour strolling through the match. Their entire system was devised to counterattacking, hoping for the best on the break. Yet Arsenal quickly made it clear they are not the soft touch that capitulated to these opponents on the opening weekend of the season.
The first goal was typical Arsenal, classy in its creation and clinical in its execution. Mesut Özil's pass for Nacho Monreal, overlapping on the left, was beautifully weighted. Monreal had the time and space to pick out Wilshere's run and the England midfielder took one touch to control the pass before angling his shot past Brad Guzan.
For all Arsenal's possession, it was one of the first times the home side had looked vulnerable. Yet what followed, for Villa, was a crushing setback. From the kick-off, the ball went back to Fabian Delph inside his own half. His poor touch allowed Wilshere to pinch the ball and he quickly played it long, from right to left, into Giroud's path. The striker had Ron Vlaar and Lowton in close proximity but managed to elude them both before cracking another emphatic finish into the same corner Wilshere had chosen barely a minute before.
Villa had already lost Nathan Baker by that point, having been knocked out after taking a shot from Serge Gnabry flush in the face, and Wenger finished the night with his own injury worries. Monreal will need an x-ray after a crunching tackle from Vlaar, with Arsenal fearing it may be a broken metatarsal. Tomas Rosicky also had to leave the pitch, having been a substitute himself, after an elbow into the face, possibly breaking his nose. Wenger, however, was smiling as he left. This time last year Arsenal were 21 points off the leaders, Manchester United, and closer to the Premier League's bottom club, Queens Park Rangers. The difference between now and then is stark.