Arsenal 1 – 3 Aston Villa
1 – 0 Giroud (6)
1 – 1 Benteke (22)
1 – 2 Benteke (62 pen)
1 – 3 Luna (86)
Laurent Koscielny sent off (74)
Anybody who didn’t expect the reaction to this defeat hasn’t been paying attention at all this summer.
It was a poor performance, nervous, intimidated, sporadically good, frequently average, throwing in abject defending to complete the set. Last season all in one game, the lessons unlearned and the pre-season condemned as a fraud. If one thing comes from yesterday, it has put to bed the lie that all we had to do was turn up to replicate the end of season run, that this squad was stronger than last time around. As it stands, there is not enough depth for the coming week; Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Sagna, Rosicky and speculation this morning that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might be out for three months.
The squad is down to bare bones, struggling to find four defenders to take the pitch on Wednesday in Istanbul and all that the manager can offer is that he and the other executives on Team Incoming Transfers (you work out your own acronym) continue to search for new signings. It is the world’s most expensive game of Hide and Seek; Arsenal aren’t very good at it. Spending money for money’s sake is not an answer, you will get found out. Not spending money equates to an illusion of wanting to invest but an unwillingness to compromise when the ‘ideal’ signing cannot be found.
And all the while, the manager berates the media for their agendas, for having their stories already written. Performances like that one offer them little need to exercise their imagination, the words fall readily onto their screens.
When the line-up was announced, there were few complaints. The XI selected to start seemed good enough to win. Indeed the plan worked, a sixth minute goal from Olivier Giroud set the afternoon for a winning start. A warning came when Giroud stumbled in his celebration, unable to complete his slide on his knees in front of the travelling support.
And then Anthony Taylor intervened, a nervous and absent defence compounding his incompetence. To blame the referee entirely for this defeat is to seek to excuse those who are as culpable, to absolve the players and manager of their culpability. Neither should Mr Taylor be let off the hook, for it was a truly terrible performance with an interpretation of the Laws of the Game which at times beggared belief.
Amid all of this were moments that offered a fleeting hope that it might be a good afternoon, the break at the from one end of the pitch, eschewing the opportunity to find Row Z, Jack Wilshere pass added to Rosicky’s wizardry baffled the Villa midfield to free Oxlade-Chamberlain, capped off with fine movement and a cute finish from Olivier Giroud. A sweeping move, concise passing, clever movement. A false dawn which was soon engulfed in dark clouds. The real problem was that Arsenal managed just three more efforts on target for the rest of the game. That is the starkest indictment, the marker of the poverty of this display. They went close, they had openings which were stifled by the visitors defence but putting just a quarter of those opportunities on target is abysmal.
The visitors would make Arsenal pay for the lack of ingenuity, the absence of meaningful attack. Agbonlahor carved a path to the penalty area through the legs of the centre of the defence and was sent tumbling by Szczesny. At which point, the referee has a decision to make; is it a penalty (no complaints, it was) and are Villa accruing an advantage through play continuing? The visitors did but Weimann put his shot into the sidenetting, the phase of play ended. Except Mr Taylor decided that advantage interpreted itself as not scoring therefore the penalty would be given. It was genuinely baffling and it will be little surprise if he finds himself refereeing Football League matches next weekend, so fundamental was his error. Szczesny redeemed himself temporarily with his save but Benteke headed home the rebound to level matters.
What followed was baffling sterile football from Arsenal. Rocked from the goal, they did not pick themselves up, there was no impetus gained. Instead they allowed themselves to be kicked and bullied into moments of petulance, manifesting in Jack Wilshere’s yellow card. That he showed composure and maturity to avoid the same fate as Laurent Koscielny bodes well. The Frenchman is an altogether different case. The only effort of note before the break saw Theo Walcott snaffle the ball from Guzan but fritter the moment as the ball failed to reach anyone in a red shirt. In between times, Kieran Gibbs had departed the field on a stretcher, necessitating Bacary Sagna moving to the left with Jenkinson slotting in on the right. Szczesny went walkabout, imbibing on the defensive slackness, eshewing every lesson learned from being dropped, scrambling back to his line as Westwood sought to embarrass the Pole. It would be little surprise to see Lukasz Fabianski in goal on Wednesday.
The second half was little better, the Arsenal attack impotent and Villa punishing mistakes. Delph struck the woodwork as a warning and just past the hour, Arsenal trailed. Agbonlahor exposed the lack of pace in the Arsenal defence, luring Laurent Koscielny into a tackle, one that Mr Taylor adjudged to be foul in its execution. Benteke made no mistake with his unconvincing spot kick. For the Arsenal defender, the yellow card gave him his warning, one that went unheeded. Koscielny reflects the team, embodies it and absorbs the mood with its extremes in performances. There is a flaw where he repeats the same mistakes time and again, every early season has a Koscielny mistake that is costly; own goals and red cards mark his Arsenal career in the first month, sometimes in the same game. Whether they are deserved or not, to repeat the mistake every twelve months is beyond careless.
It ended Arsenal’s hopes of winning, salvaging a point became the aim. Rosicky and Giroud carved an opening, Guzan blocked the effort. Cazorla thought he had equalised, Guzan tipping his shot onto the woodwork in the final ten minutes.
And then the hammer blow, the inevitable Villa counter-attack. Without a defender to bring on to compensate for Koscielny’s absence – the folly of Arsenal’s transfer ineptitude – a third for the visitors was a dangerous possibility. It happened, the ball cannoning off Luna on the edge of his own area. Receiving the return pass, the Spaniard sprinted clear of the beleaguered defence to drill home via the inside of the post.
Every game sees the manager praise his players resilience; never have they needed that trait so deeply. A bedraggled bunch will head to Turkey, wondering who will form the defence. It is too late for Team Incoming Transfers to impact that but failure to act before next weekend is as inexcusable as their dilatory behaviour so far.