Tougher tests to come, but the confidence is flowing

Arsenal made easy work of Aston Villa yesterday with a 3-0 win at the Emirates Stadium. In doing so, the Gunners made it seven league wins in a row, and did not concede a single shot on goal to their opponents; they are the first team to do this on more than one occasion this season.

It’s quite an achievement, there can be no doubting that. After drawing 0-0 with Bolton this team was in terrible shape, coming off the back of three straight league defeats. No one could have expected such a turnaround in fortunes. We were 7th after that game and the top four looked unlikely. Seven wins later and we’re 3rd, three points clear of Tottenham, who were meant to be title challengers.

A lot of these wins have been impressive, from the 7-1 over Blackburn that started the run and the wonderful derby demolition of Spurs, to the smash-and-grab nature of the wins over Sunderland, Liverpool and Everton. We’ve had stoppage time winners and we’ve set a record in coming from behind to win in four consecutive matches. The last time we won so many in a row was 2007, with arguably our best team since leaving Highbury.

However, yesterday’s win had to rank as one of the easiest of the lot. Obviously you can only beat what’s in front of you, and credit has to go to the players for their hard work in defence and the protection from midfield; Song, Rosicky and Arteta were excellent again in their pressing, and the usually suspect Johan Djourou came in and had a good game in place of the injured Laurent Koscielny. Normally we suffer when changes in personnel disrupt good partnerships that have been developing, but that was hardly noticed yesterday, which can only be a sign of increasing maturity in this side.

Still, Villa are a poor side under Alex McLeish and nowhere near the level of Martin O’Neill’s teams that have built this impressive record of theirs at the Emirates. It was clear from as early as the first minute when Emile Heskey elbowed Djourou in the face that their only plan was to rough us up, as Birmingham City did so effectively against us when McLeish was there. Villa had no quality and were pretty thuggish throughout. Aside from when a mistake by Andre Santos let them in, they didn’t look like they would score. It’s always hard to tell if that’s because they’re just rubbish or because we were playing so well, but given the way their season’s gone I think they did us some favours by simply not having anything near enough to stop us.

In the end, though, with Chelsea and Spurs drawing 0-0 earlier in the day, this was definitely a potential banana skin. A big step forward in the race for 3rd was there to be taken, and often in the past we have failed to make the most of such opportunities. Whoever we were playing, there was a job to be done and that always creates pressure. The good thing now is that this team is responding well to the pressure.

Sadly, winning runs like these are hard for anyone to maintain. We haven’t won eight in a row since the Invincibles closed in on the title in 2004. With each passing game the the task will become a little more tricky. In our next five games we play three relegation strugglers in QPR (away), Wolves (away) and Wigan (home) and two teams close to us in Man City and Chelsea, both at home.

Playing sides fighting for their lives in the Premier League isn’t easy, as we’ve learned a couple of times in recent years (and as Liverpool have learned in the space of an embarrassing few days), and Mark Hughes knows a thing or two about troubling Arsenal. I don’t particularly rate him as a manager, but he’s one of those who enjoys nothing more than sending his players out to get stuck in and stop us playing. Eight wins in a row is a big ask, and I’d possibly be content with a draw in that one.

Particularly as I fancy our chances against Man City in the following game. Their away form is particularly poor and they just haven’t been able to keep up their incredible first half of the season. They don’t have enough players who’ve gone the distance before and the pressure of finally being the top team in Manchester is becoming too big a hurdle to overcome. They have all the money, but history is against them. United have seen off many different challengers before and notoriously end the season well.

Anyway, as far as Arsenal are concerned things are looking good. For once I have faith that even if we did drop points in a game or two, we could bounce back. We finally have most of our key players fit, and experienced heads like Vermaelen, Rosicky and Arteta are carrying us over the finish line.

We’re even scoring goals without van Persie! The Dutchman has gone two games without scoring for only the second time this season. This coincided, incidently, with two English players scoring in a league game for Arsenal for the first time since 1997.

The goal of the day, however, was the gloriously-taken late free-kick from Arteta; if you watch the replays you can see how cleanly he hit it and how smoothly the ball moved in the air, almost Ronaldo-like in its perfect execution into the corner. He might not be as prolific as Fabregas in goals and assists, but Cesc could never have scored that goal. Arteta has had a surprisingly defensive role in the team since joining from Everton, but those who knew much of his time there will know what he’s capable of from long distance. Hopefully, with time, he will add a few more beauties like that to his collection.

As for Arsenal, let’s all hope they keep adding to this fine collection of wins.

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