Today was a must win for Arsenal. Not just to reverse the perception of a club descending into a familiar and vicious cycle of self inflicted wounds and low self esteem. But to resurrect the career of a manager under fire.
A defeat would have tipped the scales between the two camps, the AKB and the ASG (Arsene Should Go) resting at a precarious 50-50 irrevocably in favour of the latter. The first half saw an Arsenal bolt out of the gates in the first 15 minutes but as the game went on, Villa came on strongly, with a corresponding sense of trepidation at the other end. With Fabianski in goal, opposing teams always look to exploit his history of self immolation and early on there was plenty of signs that would happen.
Arsene Wenger mercifully did not take the is "Arshavin better off playing in center midfield" debate seriously, preferring to start Tomas Rosicky who can protect the ball a lot better than the Russian. All that movement and recycling of the ball did not pay off as Arsenal succumbed to a familiar failing, the set piece killer, this time Villa going short as Robbie Keane collected Stilian Petrov's back heel and floated the ball to Richard Dunne, who just like Antonio Valencia a week ago, rose above an Arsenal defense which went asleep at the right moment to put them on the board. It was their first set piece as Arsenal at the other end poured in corner after corner and free kick after another in a familiar pattern of futility.
This aspect of the game consistently eludes this club even though they win so many. Why? It would take the pressure of RVP immensely. Rosicky in particular was guilty of swinging in a number of ineffectual corners. That Swede who analyzed how many refereeing decisions go against Arsenal would be better off doing a more useful study as to why Arsenal are just useless when it comes to delivering on set pieces.
It got a lot worse as Darren Bent broke loose in a counterattack started by Keane and just before half time unleashed a shot that Fabianski was able to parry but only straight back to the striker who did better with his acute angle. Arsenal down two and the boo birds descended on the Emirates. It was not as if they had lacked ambition at the attacking end but it was familiar shortcomings resurfacing. The headlines were writing themselves. Arsenal on a death spiral. Wenger admitted to a safehouse in a strait jacket.
What happened in the locker room at half time is anyone's guess but Wenger might have questioned the legitimacy of their births. The first 15 minutes of the second half were all Arsenal and in a now famous (yes, even it is just a couple of hours old) turnaround starting with Alex Song's amazingly prescient pass which led to Aaron Ramsey brought down by Dunne.
The foul led to RVP's spot kick sparking Arsenal's revival. A few minutes later, in a huge lucky break, Theo Walcott breaking down the right had his shot parried by Shay Given but the ball rebounded off him into goal as he remained blissfully unaware of it all. Arsenal went ahead finally as Koscielny in an immense charge galloped down the left and was brought down by Bent. RVP collected his second PK and in a span of 7 minutes, Arsenal had swung the game around a 180 degrees.
Would this mean Wenger would take off Ox and introduce Arshavin? The thought did cross many a mind. But in an indication that the Frenchman might not have given into the voices in his head, opted for Arteta, a safer choice to replace Rosicky. Arsenal gradually took the foot of the accelerator allowing Villa to give them a few anxious moments. The last few minutes saw both Thierry Henry and Bakary Sagna being introduced, the latter to a standing ovation after months of injury. Welcome back, Bac!!
These are the sort of soul searching wins where teams who finds themselves at the doorstep of the devil, reeled in by glossy brochures of an indulgent life, check themselves, and then do the right thing, climbing back to ugly and imperfect reality. This is not a win as much as it is back to square one. But we reset to start February to take on Bolton, Blackburn, and Sunderland in our upcoming fixtures before traveling on the road to Milan for the CL knock out round with some wind on our back. Wenger on the win:
" I was very impressed because I felt that when you come out of a bad period like we are, and you are 2-0 down, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can show you have the mental qualities to play for this club. I was very proud that the team came out and showed they are not ready to lie down. "
Rosicky was industrious and sharp although his passing could do with more incisiveness, Song showed his eye for a telling outlet while continuing his disruptive presence, Koscielny in that third goal was immense along with some stellar defending, and the Ox continues to grown in strength. Walcott was far more assertive although his performance was still a bewildering mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. Fabianski was shaky but had an improved second half.