When Arsenal were beaten 2-0 by Southampton on New Year’s Day with a pretty toothless performance, I was ready to go back to 2014. But since that sobering day on the south coast, Arsenal have won five games in a row, only conceding in last week’s FA Cup win at Brighton. It’s taken over half of the season, but it seems like the Gunners have finally clicked.
Too often in the early months of the season, Arsenal were striving for fluidity in some wildly varied performances. Arsene Wenger was having trouble fielding a similar team each week because of injuries and, despite the excellent form of Alexis Sanchez, things weren’t quite working for the Gunners. With players returning from injury, Arsenal have options, players in form and are putting together some excellent team moves going forward. Playing in a surprisingly open way at the Emirates, Aston Villa got the treatment as Arsenal demolished them 5-0.
The basis of the good run of form has been the slightly unusual back five that has almost come together out of circumstance rather than design. Since coming into the team against Hull City at the beginning of January, David Ospina has yet to concede a goal in four games. Unlike previous appearances, he was tested a bit more against Villa and he made a few excellent saves to keep his run of clean sheets intact.
In front of Ospina, the benefits of being able to reunite Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are obvious, but Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal both gave performances against Aston Villa that entirely vindicated their selection ahead of Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs. Bellerin impressed again and finished the rout with a superbly placed shot from 20 yards out, but his pace and composure stood out throughout the game. This defensive solidity has also been massively aided by the return of Francis Coquelin, who continued to justify his place in the team ahead of Mathieu Flamini with another disciplined and effective performance against Villa.
While the run of four clean sheets in the last five games is in many ways the most pleasing aspect of Arsenal’s upturn in form, the flowing attacking football that was on show on Sunday will deservedly grab most of the headlines. Arsene Wenger has been careful in easing Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil back into the first-team frame as they return from long injury lay-offs, but the Frenchman seems to have judged it right as they both showed signs of getting back towards full match sharpness against Aston Villa.
With no Alexis Sanchez, who wasn’t being risked ahead of next week’s North London derby, it was a great chance for Ozil and Walcott to link-up with Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud. Both relished the opportunity, and despite mainly playing from the left, Ozil was at the heart of most good things the Gunners did in the game. If there was one moment to sum up the star quality he brings to the team, it was his beautiful assist for Olivier Giroud for Arsenal’s opening goal. With Villa playing a high-line, Ozil deftly flicked the ball over the defence with the outside of his boot following a long ball towards him, putting the Frenchman in on goal. Despite a couple of scratchy touches as he headed towards goal, Giroud wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity after such a sublime pass.
Giroud returned the favour with an excellent through ball of his own for Ozil to double the lead in the second half. Even though he isn’t known for his goal scoring, if there was a classic Ozil finish, this was it. He didn’t go for power, just pinpoint accuracy into the bottom corner to give Guzan no chance of saving it. There were still moments against Villa were it was easy to forget that Ozil was even on the pitch, but in his own, serene way, the German went about his business in a classy manner, and made decisive contributions at key moments.
Theo Walcott joined Ozil in scoring in consecutive games with an emphatic finish to make it 3-0 and kill off the opposition. In a swift counter that highlighted the fluidity of Arsenal’s attacking, Walcott surged from the left to control Cazorla’s pass and stroke the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. His overall game is still a bit rough round the edges after returning from injury, but when attacking on instinct, his finishing remains excellent.
With the game won, Arsene Wenger was able to rotate his forward-line and give Chuba Akpom an opportunity up front. His willingness to run in behind the defence brought about the penalty, which Santi Cazorla just about dispatched for 4-0. Cazorla orchestrated things brilliantly once again, but even he’d admit that it wasn’t his best penalty. Brad Guzan got a big hand on the ball but could only palm it into the bottom corner.
There was a period after half time at 1-0 when Arsenal were a bit sloppy and invited pressure from the visitors, but ultimately Aston Villa played into Arsenal’s hands by committing too many players forward. Earlier in the season Arsenal weren’t clinical enough as they needed too many shots in a game to score, but the team made the most of their opportunities against Villa to kill the game off before being able to have some fun later in the match.
Five wins in a row is the perfect preparation for the North London derby, and also means Arsenal are currently outside the top four by just one goal. The derby will be a big test, and Arsene Wenger has some tough team selections choices to make, but whoever he selects is finding form. It might be about five months too late, but Arsenal have finally found a consistent winning formula.