The expeditious comeback may have been seen by some as masking Arsenal’s flaws but there wasn’t anything wholly atypical about the performance. It’s true that Arsenal took advantage brilliantly in an amazing seven minutes to better the half-time deficit, showing a mental fortitude that had deserted them during the winter period but the way they came back wasn’t too unfamiliar. Again this season, as they did in the previous game against Manchester United, Arsenal seemed to benefit from that extra direction given by Arséne Wenger after the break and simply upped their intensity. (Arsenal have won 7 matches after half-time from drawing or losing positions, scoring 13 goals). Aaron Ramsey was pushed closer to Robin van Persie, the team pressed higher and passed the ball with greater urgency than what was lacking in the first-half as Arsenal sought about salvaging the season.
As Alan Hansen writes in The Telegraph, Arsenal’s “system is overly reliant on having regular good days playing attractive football. They can no longer be certain of the old levels of consistency. The way Arsenal defend, they can lose even when they play well in possession.” Thus a cautiousness has snuck in, as typified by their comatose first-half performance and they have generally relied on Robin van Persie to break them out of their tedium. In Wenger’s defence, there were visible attempts by Arsenal to improve their keeping of the ball against Villa; such as the centre-backs spreading wide to receive the short-pass from goal-kicks, Alex Song making himself a visible outlet from the back (that was helped, strangely, by Alex McLeish opting not to have Robbie Keane sit on Song in the defensive phase) and the use quick, short passing in the centre.
But Arsenal have lacked that Cesc Fábregas factor; somebody that can link the midfield and attack and as a result, Aston Villa were not required to exert extreme physical effort to contain Arsenal. They did, to give them credit, defended in two banks of four but Arsenal’s passivity allowed them to gain confidence. Essentially their two goals came by exposing Arsenal’s weaknesses in the only times they attacked. The Gunners dozed off from a short-corner kick to let Richard Dunne head in but scored a worthy goal of their own when Darren Bent put the finishing touches to Aston Villa’s rapid counter-attack.
In the second-half Arsenal finally came to life. The instigator of this comeback was Aaron Ramsey who played less of a roaming role as he did the first and supported Robin van Persie closer. He’s often Wenger’s go-to man, usually tasked with tactical briefs before the match or at half-time with the main objective of taking the game “by the scruff of the neck” and here Ramsey proved the catalyst as his tackle on the halfway line started the move which won the penalty (which he was fouled by Richard Dunne).
Ramsey pressed higher, Rosicky followed and Alex Song followed. Indeed, the whole team did and there was a moment at 3-2 on 67 minutes where McLeish urged his team to push out but lost the ball immediately due to Arsenal’s asphyxiating pressure. The shape of Arsenal changed from a 4-2-1-3 to 4-3-3 and it suited the midfielders better. And the sign that Arsenal are playing with a tempo and urgency is Song bursting forward and the midfielder gave great impetus with his drive. But crucially, the half-time change gave Arsenal a better balance, especially without Mikel Arteta, who made a comeback, and transformed them to the Arsenal we are more familiar with. Aaron Ramsey was key, getting into great positions and linking up play neatly and with the two wide forwards more involved, finally Arsenal had a sting to their play. Yet, most reassuringly might be how Arsenal defended when they pressed higher up the pitch and only restricted Aston Villa to a meek response to the three goal salvo. At the moment, outside pressures and injuries dictate Arsenal’s approach to games but if this was a game which highlighted outstanding flaws that need to be ironed out, it also gave a glimpse to what might be in the coming months.