In a fairly even match between one in the mid-table of the Premier League and one who are now top, Jack Wilshere put Arsenal ahead on 35 minutes before capitalising on a Fabian Delph error to play in Olivier Giroud for the second less than a minute later.
It was the Gunners at their clinical best, Aston Villa at their defensive worst. One side taking their chance to go top, the other making far too many mistakes to convince people they will not be dragged into a relegation battle this term.
It was a shame. This match had started to come to the boil nicely. Villa’s start, where they had their moments in an offensive sense despite starting with five defenders, had done enough to worry the North Londoners with early efforts from Delph and Karim El Ahmadi.
The catalyst of this Arsenal victory was again Wilshere, taking a 50-50 game by the scruff of the neck with the vision, passing and finishing necessary of top players. His all-round performance was a splendid retort to his critics.
Wilshere was buoyant afterwards as he is working to bring more goals into his game; “I see myself as an attacking midfielder so I need goals and assists like the Gerrards and Lampards,” he said afterwards.
At least a battling Villa eventually set up a close finish as Christian Benteke scored his first goal since September — a run of 13 matches — as the Gunners switched off.
The hosts had not been helped by the kind of sickening injury you would rather not see on a football field. Early on young defender Nathan Baker took the full force of a free kick from Serge Gnabry in the face. The game was stopped for six minutes, oxygen was given to the centre back, he was removed motionless from the Villa Park surface to a bigger, more comfortable stretcher and you knew he wouldn’t be returning.
Fortunately, Villa revealed he had suffered merely mild concussion but in a footballing sense the change of Leandro Bacuna for Baker meaning a switch to 4-4-2 from the 5-3-2 they had started with, hit Paul Lambert’s side.
The visitors went on to take the 35th-minute lead as Mesut Ozil fed Nacho Monreal down the left and he was able to pick the pass of Wilshere who in turn beat Brad Guzan with a classy finish.
Wilshere’s tenacity then allowed him to dispossess Delph, his quick-thinking found Giroud who scored with aplomb for his 12th goal of the campaign.
A shell-shocked Villa had no initial answers to the goals, but at least manager Paul Lambert will have been pleased with the resounding second half response.
Villa played at a tempo seldom seen at home this term, where they have just two league victories, and provided Arsenal with one or two late scares.
Benteke had a penalty shout waved away for tangling with Laurent Koscielny while Delph forced Wojciech Szczesny into several saves.
Benteke produced arguably his best display in months and it was fitting that he finally got on the scoresheet 14 minutes from time, diving to head home from Matt Lowton’s superb cross after a rare, uncharacteristic Arsenal error from sub Kieran Gibbs.
Suddenly Benteke had his swagger back after a first goal in over 14 hours as Villa Park desperately tried to lift him and his team-mates. They peppered Arsenal’s defence with the long ball with Delph and Benteke desperately attempting to force shots at Szczesny.
But Arsenal defended for their lives, showing a gritty side they did not had to show too often, as they overcame an injury to Tomas Rosicky’s nose as the substitute was forced off and six minutes of injury time to see the game out.
In the end, both will reflect on a 60 second first half spell that could be so vital when final league positions are decided in May.
This was not the complete Arsenal performance but as their fans chanted “we are top of the league”, Arsene Wenger could hardly reflect on a job well done.
Contrastingly, Paul Lambert could, to an extent, as for the first time in four home games the Scot was not booed down the tunnel by his own fans.
Arsenal, who traditionally have struggled in January, are back on top, jumping above Manchester City who they lead by just a point and with Chelsea just a further point adrift and Liverpool four points further back, it’s shaping up to be one hell of a title run-in.
ASTON VILLA (5-3-2): Guzan 6; Lowton 7, Vlaar 6, Baker 6 (Bacuna 21, 6), Clark 6, Luna 6; El Ahmadi 5 (Weimann 73, 6), Westwood 7, Delph 6; Agbonlahor 6, Benteke 7.
ARSENAL (4-5-1): Szczesny 6; Sagna 7, Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 7 (Gibbs 66, 5); Gnabry 7 (Rosicky 69, 5, (Oxlade-Chamberlain 86), Flamini 7, Ozil 7, Wilshere 8, Cazorla 7; Giroud 7.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick 7.