It is the time of year for giving, but Arsenal's generosity knows no bounds. For the second time in eight days Arsène Wenger's side conspired to make a two‑goal lead at half-time look like the most vulnerable position to be in. This time there was to be no repeat of the humiliating collapse against Tottenham Hotspur, yet it was still impossible to ignore the defensive shortcomings that allowed Aston Villa back into a match that should have been well beyond them.
Coasting thanks to first-half goals from Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri, Arsenal were forced to endure a nervous finale after Ciaran Clark struck either side of Marouane Chamakh's 10th goal of the season to give Aston Villa supporters hope of producing the most unlikely of comebacks. Arsenal ultimately prevailed as Jack Wilshere registered his first Premier League goal for the club with a close-range header in injury time, but it was ridiculous that the visitors were forced to wait until the closing seconds to kill off the game.
Wenger could be forgiven for wondering whether his players take some sort of pleasure from seeing him looking like a tortured soul on the touchline. Arsenal had 18 shots on goal and were so dominant in the first half that the match resembled one of those training sessions in which the defenders have to keep giving the ball back to the attackers to encourage them to have another go at breaking them down. Villa departed to boos and the suspicion was that this could turn into a rout.
Yet instead of continuing in the same vein in the second half, Arsenal emerged seemingly weighed down by events at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday, when Tottenham triumphed 3-2 after trailing 2-0. Villa, looking much more purposeful without the hugely disappointing Robert Pires – who was withdrawn at the interval and, on this evidence, would have been better off retiring when he failed to find a club in the summer – pulled a goal back through Clark's left-footed volley as the Arsenal defence unwisely chose to retreat rather than close the midfielder down.
Gérard Houllier, the Villa manager, reflected how interesting the game would have been had the scoreline remained at 2-1 for a period, but, within four minutes, Arsenal scored again. Chamakh, who had earlier drawn a brilliant point-blank save from Brad Friedel with a towering header, toe-poked Tomas Rosicky's slide-rule pass beyond the Villa keeper.
Clark pegged Arsenal back again in the 70th minute, when he nodded the ball in off the underside of the bar, but Wilshere's diving header – from Chamakh's unselfish centre – allowed Wenger to breathe more easily. "You do not always lose when you dominate the game," Wenger, casting his mind back to the Tottenham fixture, said. "We were very dominant in the first half. The only regret you have at that stage is that you do not score enough goals. And then, at 2-0 at half-time, you feel among the players that what happened last week had an impact in their heads. When Villa came back to 2-1 it was an interesting test for my team. We could have crumbled or scored again, and we scored again."
With Cesc Fábregas missing because of injury, the onus was on Arsenal's more experienced players to deliver and Arshavin answered the call. The Russian has flattered to deceive on too many occasions, but he shimmered with menace here. It was Arshavin's goal – drilled low into the bottom corner after Luke Young and James Collins challenged for the same ball – that put Arsenal in front and he also created their second with a perfectly weighted corner that Nasri volleyed inside Friedel's near post just before half-time.
Villa's second-half revival enabled them to recover some self-respect, but these are worrying times for a club that has spent the past three seasons ensconced in the top six. Houllier has a dreadful injury list, but he refused to cite that as an excuse for their anaemic first-half performance. "We never got started," the Villa manager said. "In the second half it was a different team. We showed more energy, took more risks and were more daring in what we wanted to achieve. But we have to be honest – we were beaten by the better team."
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT MARK RUTTER, Observer reader In the first half we were really poor – we lacked commitment, structure and leadership. Carew was stuck up front on his with no supply from the midfield, while Pires looked past it and no longer capable of playing at the top level. The second half was a lot better, probably because of a much-needed Houllier telling‑off. We pulled ourselves back into the game, but were denied a clear penalty, while Chamakh's fouling somehow went unpunished. We are missing power in the middle of the park caused by Milner's departure and injuries to several key players.
The fan's player ratings Friedel 6; L Young 6, Dunne 6, Collins 6, Warnock 5; Downing 5 (Herd 85 n/a), Clark 7, Pires 6 (Delfouneso ht 6); A Young 7; Carew 5 (Ireland 66 6)
BEN LOVER, Observer reader It's been a difficult week for us, so it's good to get back to winning ways. We need to be more solid at the back, but we're still in a good position. It always looked like we'd concede – it's the way we play, going forward when we should sit back. A clean sheet would have been great, but not many teams go to Villa Park and score four. Wilshere and Arshavin played really well. Wilshere didn't give the ball away and looked assured, and Arshavin was dangerous every time he got the ball. He played a more central role and created all game. People talk of a crisis at Arsenal, but plenty of clubs would like a crisis like ours.
The fan's player ratings Fabianski 7; Sagna 6, Koscielny 7, Squillaci 7, Clichy 6; Song 6, Wilshere 8; Rosicky 7 (Djourou 90 n/a), Nasri 7 (Gibbs 85 n/a), Arshavin 8 (Denílson 85 n/a); Chamakh 8
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