For most of the first half, if not the entire game, Arsenal was arguably the lesser team. Which means nothing, of course. The game is judged by goals, not figure skating judges, and particularly when there’s a very early goal, we should hold off judging teams based on style points.
But when we’re talking about Arsenal, who beat Aston Villa 2-1 at the Emirates on Saturday, the statement becomes ironic. This is a team that used to be defined by their style, an approach that used to win leagues and became an ideological life-preserver once the trophies stopped flowing. The Gunners played beautiful soccer, better soccer, and employed an approach that would give manager Arsène Wenger license to stubbornly insist his team was better after back-breaking losses to Chelsea and Manchester United.
Even though the Gunners came around on Saturday and eventually controlled the match, that philosophical high ground is gone, another rueful side note in Arsenal’s slow decay. But at least they got three points. After Santi Cazorla completed his double in the 85th minute, restoring a lead he’d given the Gunners six minutes into the match, Wenger can do as every other manager in world soccer does and be happy with three points. Trade your contrived morality for three points, Arsène. Sitting fifth in the league, you need them.
(MORE: Considering the evolving Manchester United narrative.)
For some, this assessment of Arsenal may seem harsh. By more objective measures, Arsenal were the controlling side, dominating possession and more than doubling Aston Villa’s shots on goal. Yet it took a while to get there, Villa eventually equalizing through Andreas Weimann mid-way through the second half. Until that point, the teams looked fairly even except for one extremely important moment: Cazorla’s opening goal. That Arsenal is allowing Villa, one of the league’s worst teams, that much of a match at the Emirates is something we’ve had to get used to.
But that larger arc shouldn’t overshadow Cazorla, who put in one of his best performances of a great debut campaign on Saturday. In recent months the Spaniard had failed to match his early season dominance, but against Villa, it returned, with Cazorla complementing his two goals by consistently providing the team’s most dangerous passes.
Though he again had to make room for a slightly more advances Jack Wilshire, Cazorla gave us our first hints that the setup could work. In a left-to-in role, Cazorla was the game’s best player.
It’s something on which Arsenal can build. With the win, they temporarily sit one point behind fourth place Spurs, with Tottenham set to visit West Ham on Monday.
Here’s Cazorla’s opener, a nice bit of control and finishing after his first shot was blocked:
More reaction to the day’s English Premier League results coming throughout your Saturday.