After all the other title contenders won their games over the weekend, Arsenal had to beat Aston Villa to keep pace with them. After a comfortable first hour, Aston Villa finally turned up and the Gunners had to hold strong at the back. Per Mertesacker was once again the leader of the back four and put in a great performance. When the pressure was on, Arsenal’s back-line repelled the battering ram that came in the last 15-20 minutes to take the Gunners back to the top of the table.
The first half of this game was almost like a training session for Arsenal. In the second half, the North London side got complacent and allowed Villa to get back in the game. Arsenal had lost their flow and had a tough time getting it back meaning the defence had to step up and stay strong. Mertesacker made more headed clearances, 12, than any other player on the pitch. The German international also won five of his nine aerial duels. He was also very good in the tackle, winning all three of his attempted tackles, which was a problem last time Arsenal played Villa and the Gunners gave away two penalties. Mertesacker also completed all 42 of his attempted passes showing his calmness in possession. This calmness helped Arsenal keep possession so well and pass the ball around comfortably in the first half when they were running the game.
Mertesacker, while he did take the armband for the game in the absence of Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen, has been the “captain without the armband”. After the game against Manchester City, the “big f****** German” wrung out Mesut Ozil after he started walking away without clapping the away fans. Some people made it out to be a rift in the team. In hind sight, many fans and coaches would like it for their players to keep other players in line.
After the Villa goal, Mertesacker started screaming at Santi Cazorla, who gave the ball away resulting in the cross for the goal. The German has become a great leader at Arsenal and his leadership qualities, along with the qualities of some other players, are reasons why some people are more confident in this Arsenal team than past teams.
The key moment of the game came in the 82nd minute. Villa had scored to bring the game back to 2-1 making the last 15 minutes plus stoppage time very nervy for Arsenal. Villa were on the front foot pumping balls forward trying to break the Arsenal defence. Initially, Gabby Agbonlahor received the ball out on the right were Mertesacker came out to close him down. Agbonlahor passed the ball back centrally to Delph allowing Mertesacker to get back to his central position. Delph lobbed a ball into the box to substitute Andreas Weimann who did extremely well to flick the ball back over his head and keep it from going out of play. The flick fell to an unmarked Mathew Lowton, who had already put in the cross for the first goal. Lowon put in another delicious cross that was going straight to Benteke’s head. Mertesacker only jumped about an inch off the floor but it was enough to get a vital touch on the ball to send it out of play and prevent what surely would have been a Villa equalizer.
In the end, Arsenal were able to hold on to those precious three points that took them top of the table once again. It has been said time and time again that other Arsenal sides would have folded and dropped points in a game like that with the pressure on. Jack Wilshere even admitted in an interview with Sky Sports after the game that in the past he could “feel the nerves throughout the team” but said he no longer feels those nerves in the team. Wilshere went on to praise the two center backs, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, as two of the main reasons why they no longer feel those nerves. This mental toughness has developed in the Arsenal team through growing experience and by having leaders like Per Mertesacker, like Mathieu Flamini, and like Mikel Arteta. That is a quality that separates this Arsenal team from ones of old and one quality that is needed to win a title. This toughness along with the great quality and great football Arsenal always have makes them real contenders for the title this season.
We’ll leave you with an image from our friends at Bleacher Report – showing why Arsenal have the best central defensive partnership: