Arsenal have their respite. The malaise that had infected this club over the last week was lifted late on here just as the frustration was mounting again, Santi Cazorla emerging from the mess of half-chances and missed opportunities to salvage relief from a miserable week. Deflating Aston Villa, a team labouring beneath the cut-off, never proved straightforward but Arsène Wenger will rejoice in any kind of victory at present.
This club needed to buck recent trends and a draw here, in the context of Villa's own toils and the pursuit of Tottenham Hotspur and the top four, would merely have prolonged that unnerving sense of crisis ahead of next weekend's trip to White Hart Lane. Had the visitors not retreated in on themselves after scoring the equaliser they deserved, then the anxiety might have been all Arsenal's. Instead the hosts, reprieved, poured at them sensing blood.
Chances were spurned, the ball failing to drop kindly to Lukas Podolski or Theo Walcott in front of goal and Olivier Giroud thumping a header on to the bar via Brad Guzan's fingertips, with each miss prompting wails of exasperation from the majority in the stands. Wenger was a flapping, anxious presence in the technical area, while the majority shareholder Stan Kroenke sunk further underneath an Arsenal blanket as he shivered in the directors' box. Then Jack Wilshere, inevitably, clipped a pass over Andreas Weimann for Nacho Monreal to collect and square with Cazorla's finish assured and accurate. "The result was vital," said Wenger. "A draw today would have been a very bad result." Life looks rosier with Spurs just a point away, albeit potentially only until Monday, and with Everton now a distant five adrift in sixth.
Weimann slumped over an advertising hoarding as the arena celebrated the winner, his own performance deserving of far better than this. The Austrian had tormented the hosts down their left flank all afternoon, exposing Monreal – cup-tied against Bayern Munich in midweek and clearly still adjusting to new surroundings – and almost supplying first-half goals to both Gabriel Agbonlahor and Charles N'Zogbia after reaching the byline uncontested. What made that sustained period of Villa dominance all the more baffling was the reality that it was achieved while Arsenal actually led. For a while Wenger's charges had been jittery, all error-strewn and slack in their passing while Villa, a side without an away win since mid-December and denied their experienced centre-half Ron Vlaar with a calf strain, swarmed all over them.
Ciaran Clark should have converted a free header from Ashley Westwood's corner, with Agbonlahor also culpable as he nodded wide at the far post. Yet, even with Christian Benteke enduring one of his more peripheral afternoons, they still merited the equaliser eventually plucked on the counterattack midway through the second period. Arsenal had committed upfield for a corner and offered little resistance to Villa's break. Weimann collected inside his own half and scurried at an uneasy Monreal, forcing him back towards his own box with the forward's shot spat at goal from 20 yards.
Wojciech Szczesny would normally have dealt with the attempt but his own form feels fragile, the effort bursting through the Pole's block to billow the net. Thereafter, Villa might have secured at least the point that would have kept them out of the relegation zone. "We should never have lost it," said Paul Lambert. "We were exceptional in parts of that game and we should have been in the lead at half-time. At the very least we should have come away with a point. But we've still got massive games still to come, and there'll be a lot of twists and turns this season. I've always had the belief we'd be OK."
They will take heart from this performance up until that late retreat, which so invited Arsenal to restore their lead. Cazorla had also registered early, Wilshere delivering him the ball on the corner of the penalty box after a spell of sustained possession. The Spaniard opted to place a low cross into the six-yard box towards Giroud but his delivery was blocked by Nathan Baker, only for the ball to ping back to Cazorla. He controlled it on his chest, evaded Matthew Lowton's lunge and fizzed a low shot goalwards which flew into the corner via the fingertips of the diving Guzan's left hand.
A second goal might have killed off the contest far earlier, only for nerves to bite yet again before Cazorla, with his 11th of the campaign, made his late impression. "I didn't expect him to score so many goals," added Wenger. "He's a complete football player because he also has spirit. He's a good example to follow and gives everything." Arsenal will need to follow his lead at White Hart Lane next Sunday. If this was a test, the derby might prove a trial.