Arsenal moved back to the top of the Premier League with thanks to goals from Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud, but Aston Villa pushed them all the way in a more-than-nervy finish. Christian Benteke's 76th-minute goal, his first in 854 minutes, sent the Villa fans into a frenzy, and they really tore the roof off Villa Park as they urged their team on for the last 14 minutes plus injury time. In the end, the Gunners just about hung on.
After the game, Jack Wilshere spoke to Sky Sports:
It's a massive three points, especially in the second half when Villa came at us.
We've done that a lot this season, maybe dropped off in the second half and let teams come on to us, but we dealt with it. We're showing that side of our game and we hope to continue that for the rest of the season.
Arsenal's performance for the closing period of the game was in stark contrast to the controlled and measured execution of the first 70 minutes. Execution is the right and proper word here, because Villa were never in the game. The match only changed when Andreas Weimann was introduced in the 72nd minute. From there, Villa kicked on impressively, but before that it was almost embarrassing.
At times this resembled a training match. Arsene Wenger's side were in complete and utter control of a Villa team who looked well out of their depth.
Paul Lambert changed his formation multiple times throughout the match as Villa tried to gain a foothold in midfield, but it was not until he decided to bypass the middle of the park completely that his team came back into the game. Unfortunately for the Villans it was a real case of too little too late by a manager who is now second favorite to be the next boss sacked in the Premier League according to The Sackrace.
Lambert's decision to choose a very strange 3-5-1-1 formation with Gabriel Agbonlahor playing just behind Christian Benteke in midfield meant that Arsenal only needed to play two at the back.
Both Nacho Monreal and Bacary Sagna were pushed on by the superb partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Because Benteke offered no threat, they were totally unafraid of what the out-of-form Belgian had to offer.
This tactical move basically neutered Lambert's hopes of overloading midfield. As far as Villa's work through the middle was concerned, it was a real case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Monreal and Sagna camped out in Villa's half as the Gunners used the two full-backs to devastating effect. This can be seen in these heat maps from Squawka:
Both Arsenal full backs have been up & down all night. Nacho Monreal's heat map is bonkers. pic.twitter.com/QzYBwSaCjE— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 13, 2014
After 20 minutes, Lambert changed his formation to a 4-4-2, but the pattern of the game had already been set, and there was nothing he would be able to do to curb Wenger's marauding defenders.
Both full-backs were very influential in everything that was good about Arsenal, but none of it could have been possible if Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini were not on song in central midfield.
Between the influential pairing they got on the ball 176 times, according to WhoScored, and they utterly controlled and inhibited Aston Villa's midfield with a disciplined performance of the highest level.
From attacking to defending, the Wilshere-Flamini partnership was balanced throughout. Both players seemed to have a great understanding of each other. Flamini, as the more defensively disciplined player, was happy for Wilshere to push on, but their understanding was not exclusively one way.
We have seen some superb performances from Aaron Ramsey for Arsenal this season, particularly when he has partnered Flamini. However, the Frenchman joining the attack is an all-too-rare occurrence. He looked comfortable with Wilshere, who defended when needed.
It was fitting that Arsenal's first goal came from their dominance in both left-back and central midfield.
The goal culminated an 18-pass move that went from left to right and back again, and which actually started with Gunners goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
The decisive blow came when Monreal played an incredible one-two with Mesut Ozil before the Spaniard crossed for Wilshere to slide the ball home. Ozil's pass was sublime, but it would have never happened if not for Monreal's intelligent positional play.
The goal encapsulated the entire match in one move. Arsenal were fluent, intelligent and patient while Villa were cumbersome, stunted in their play and unable to string more than a handful of passes together.
Matthew Lowton was caught out ball-watching by Ozil's smart pass inside, and all of a sudden Villa were behind, deservedly.
The second goal followed swiftly after when Wilshere set up Giroud. The Englishman's lofted pass was luckily controlled by the center-forward who was out of sorts all match. What he did do, to great effect, was provide the Gunners with a constant out ball when they were under pressure.
The main reason for this was because of the excellent support he constantly received from both full-backs, Wilshere, Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky.
The same cannot be said of Benteke, who plowed a lone furrow for most of the match. Agbonlahor did support him on the rarest of occasions, but Mertesacker and Koscielny never looked in trouble.
The second half kicked off in very much the same vein as the first with Arsenal in command.
Wilshere and Flamini once again dominated midfield and, to be frank, Aston Villa looked out of ideas.
Lambert, in one last throw of the dice, having changed his team around umpteen times, brought Weimann on for the last 20 minutes. The Scot then changed the team to a 4-3-3 and decided to completely bypass midfield and go long to Benteke, who now had adequate support.
Within three minutes Villa had pulled a goal back. Within five minutes they had Arsenal pinned down. For the last 20 minutes, they peppered the Gunners' 18-yard box with crosses from all angles, long balls, short balls and even slide-rule passes through the defense.
Why they did not start with this system is anyone's guess.
Arsenal have dominated almost every midfield they have come across this season, so why Lambert thought his mid-table side could cope is baffling to say the least. This is all the more strange when you realize that Villa tore Arsenal apart with a 4-3-3 in the opening game of the season. They won 3-1.
In the end, Arsenal scraped home, but they had to rely heavily upon Koscielny and Mertesacker. The duo were brilliant all night, especially in the final 20 minutes where they, perhaps, had to do more defending than in their previous couple of games.
Arsene Wenger will learn more about his team from the final 20 minutes than in the opening 70 minutes. Wilshere and Flamini stood out in midfield, Cazorla and Rosicky both went missing when the chips were down, and the defense was solid.
Arsenal have made 24 clearances in the second half, Aston Villa have made just 3.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 13, 2014
The Gunners won and returned to the top of the table, but they did so in a manner that could have been far more comfortable. They now go on a four-game run where they should, in all honesty, win every game. However, Liverpool are lying in wait and will punish them if they do not learn from their mistakes.
There is much Paul Lambert can take from this game, but the same could be said of Villa's first game of the season against Arsenal. They just don't seem to be learning and need to pick up to avoid being dragged into the relegation battle.
Statistics from WhoScored, Squawka and the Premier League.