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Feb 23, 2013

Arsenal's limits becoming clear

It is one of the most peculiar elements of Arsenal's season, but also something that is thoroughly predictable. No matter how bad a season gets, no matter how dismal the previous sequence of results, the Gunners appear to retain the capacity for getting a crucial win just when their campaign seems set to turn critical.

After defeats to Swansea and Olympiakos in December they beat a then very upwardly mobile West Brom side, while they also roused themselved to rout Reading 5-2 following the traumatic League Cup elimination to Bradford.

And so it was against Aston Villa on Saturday, when the extremes surrounding this fixture made it all the more important and impressive that the trend was maintained.

Because, after Blackburn knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup and Bayern Munich all but eliminated them from the Champions League, Villa came close to pulling off the kind of result that would have done serious damage to their single remaining objective - the race for the top four.

The potential effect on the team's psyche, especially after so many chastening recent reality checks, would have been even worse than the result. Instead, though, Arsenal displayed an admirable - and crucial - resilience to hit a late winner, suddenly making the race for the Champions League places look much more inviting.

The effect on morale could be the key consequence of the victory, with Arsene Wenger acknowledging as much afterwards when he praised the unity of his team.

"The result was vital today. We absolutely had to win this game," he said. "We couldn't afford to drop points, both because we're in a catch-up situation in the Premier League and we've come out of two massive disappointments.

"But we were focused, united, a bit nervous... we played a bit with the handbrake in some situations, and the second goal didn't come. But we were also strong because, when Villa came back to 1-1, we found the resources to win the game.

"Overall, the regret we had was that we could have scored many, many goals today. We created a number of chances, but I'm proud of the attitude of the team. We went through some difficult days and responded in a united way."

Wenger picked out the influential Santi Cazorla for particular praise. The playmaker scored four minutes after the start and four minutes from the end to ensure that Andreas Weimann's 68th-minute strike for Villa was irrelevant.

"Cazorla played very well and delivered in a game that was very important," Wenger said. "He's a great player. He has shown he's a great football player, and I'm happy and grateful he delivered those two important goals today."

But the performance and resilience shown arguably threw up as many questions as answers. If the team can illustrate such character and claim a win just when things look set to turn nastier, why can't they do it in the big games against the best teams?

Wenger, after all, has spoken of a "psychological problem" in the squad when they play against the likes of Chelsea and the Manchester clubs, which appears in stark contrast to the sort of resilience demonstrated against Villa.

The obvious answer, of course, is fundamental quality. For a variety of reasons that have been investigated in depth elsewhere, this Arsenal team is at a stage at which it is only competitive up to a certain level and no longer has the personality to go above that.

So while the Gunners can persevere against any team up to the top four in the Premier League, they wilt against any above that mark.

Against Villa, there were many positives, including the growing influence and assertiveness of Olivier Giroud and the interchanges of Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. The team as a whole put together some nice passing moves that began to recall the Arsenal of old, not least the move for the winner. But there were also too many occasions on which a final, crucial pass was underhit or an idea was over-elaborate.

The fact that one of their main strengths was also one of their main flaws summed them up. Although Nacho Monreal was exceptional going forward and eventually provided the assist for Cazorla's winner, his presence in defence was near non-existent and it regularly seemed Villa were specifically targeting his flank.

It all adds up to the persistent perception that this Arsenal only possess a vague shape or identity. They only ever suggest a top team.

Villa impose themselves amid moments of Arsenal uncertainty and occasionally took command. They were eventually confident enough to punish Arsenal in the second half when the home side failed to take their chances.

"We shouldn't have lost it," Villa boss Paul Lambert said. "We were exceptional in parts of that game, and we should have been in the lead at half-time.

"At the very least, we should have come away with a point. We've played like that for a number of weeks: West Brom, Everton, Newcastle in the second half, West Ham. We've just got to try and get more points on the board. We've got massive games still to come, and there'll be a lot of twists and turns this season."

Wenger said Arsenal could not afford any more stumbles, adding: "We cannot drop points. That's what is in our mind, no matter where we go and who we play. We are in a catch-up situation. The key for us is to be consistent. A draw today would have been a very, very bad result."

But Arsenal got a very good result, one that keeps their season very much alive, may enhance their entire mentality and could see them in the Champions League again. But the afternoon enforced the impression this is a team built for the top four and no more. What price we see them in a similar position in 12 months, facing similar problems?

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