Arsenal 0 – 2 Aston Villa
0 – 1 Clichy o.g. (70)
0 – 2 Agbonlahor (80)
After the match, Arsene said:
You cannot speak about whether you will be champions or not at this stage but to be champions you need to be consistent – and we are not.
That sums up Arsenal’s current position succinctly. Despite inconsistencies, the team lie fourth, nine points behind Liverpool and Chelsea (although ten points is more accurate given the latter’s goal difference) yet on the evidence of recent games, that gap will not decrease. It might not increase either but to beat one of your closest rivals and then lose to a team who are looking to take your place in the cartel in the upper echelons of the table, is not a sign of a serious challenge.
Yesterday was quite simply a calamity. Villa came, as suspected, with a five strong midfield but they defended in packs, were solid, isolated Bendtner to the point where his performance was non-descript and once they had got to grips with the supply to Walcott, pretty much controlled the game. The better side on the day won.
Early indications were that it might not be that way. Walcott twice eluded Young on the right and got decent crosses in; the first slightly behind Bendtner, the latter too strong for him to slide onto. Both occasions highlighted the dangers of packing the midfield because there was an absence of other Arsenal players in the area; no Nasri, Fabregas or Diaby supporting and in this formation, they have to make those runs.
Once Barry moved across to snuff out the service to Walcott, the youngster’s threat disappeared, leaving no outlet on either flank, Nasri having a poor game by comparison to the previous week. Villa probed equally well, direct in their running. Young, Sidwell, Barry and Petrov could have given the visitors an earlier lead from open play, either wasteful or drawing saves from Almunia or any combination of the above. Young though spurned the best chance of all in the first half. Having bamboozled Gallas with some nifty footwork, he forced a rash challenge from Walcott, no complaints about the penalty award.
Fortunately, Fabregas’ fierce tackle on Barry left the Villa captain unable to take the spot kick. Young did and Almunia dived to his right to parry, Gallas sliding in to prevent the rebound ending up in the Arsenal net. Gallas might have been inside the area when the ball was initially struck but the margins on calling those decisions are tight and Mike Riley not brave enough to pull him up on the infringement.
The second half began much as the first had ended with Arsenal coming into the game more but as was the case previously, they faded badly. It came as little surprise when Villa took the lead, even though the chances spurned by the visitors looked as if they could be costly by dropping two of the three points they deserved.
Young set off on another direct run and whipped in an excellent cross. Under pressure from Agbonlahor, Clichy diverted the ball into his own net. It was a poor own goal to concede. Despite the close attentions of the forward, Clichy had enough visibility of the ball to direct it, at the very least, upwards but from the angle of his defensive run, he should have been able to put the ball out of play on the other side of the goal.
Chasing the game, Adebayor who had been on the pitch ten minutes before Villa scored, came closer to an equaliser than Bendtner had in his time on the pitch with an overhead kick. It mattered for nought as Laursen’s long punt upfield found Agbonlahor, who shielded the ball from Gallas and proceeded to bury it past Almunia. The goal was shrouded in controversy. Vela was clearly felled by Laursen in the initial attack. Very poor officiating because Riley should have booked the Mexican for ‘simulation’ if he felt the challenge to be fair. He did not therefore his decision not award a free kick is illogical.
That aside, blaming the official for the defeat is futile as it masks what was a poor performance. The passing game was neutered by a hard-working Villa midfield. For Arsene, the international week is both blessing and a curse. Whilst being deprived of the opportunity to work on the failings of the performance, he can only hope that those away with their countries take the opportunity to clear their heads and come back to the club stronger.
Too often in the opening third of the season though, inconsistency has reared its’ ugly head. This is a bigger problem for Wenger to address. The defence is not impregnable and the team is relying on two or more goals to win games, or even take a point. It was the same last season. It is hard to see how Wenger will solve that issue. Yes, van Persie and Adebayor were missing entirely or for most of yesterday but the forwards need service.
The inexperience of the midfield was shown up yesterday and the over-reliance on Fabregas to provide solutions is becoming worryingly like the dependency on Henry in his latter seasons at the club. With the Spaniard not at his best, the rest are not stepping up to the plate often enough.
Arsene called for eleven leaders on the pitch recently. He found mice instead of men yesterday. Even so, the title has not yet disappeared out of sight but the team are relying on United, Chelsea and Liverpool losing when they face us and then dropping points against each other. Both those scenarios are entirely plausible. Problematically, Arsenal are not winning the games against the other teams in the division on anything like a consistent enough basis to take advantage of those stumbles.
There are precedents to the current form in Wenger’s reign. It might be this season turns into a repeat of 1997/98 where a relentless run of wins is forged and the opposition worn down in a title chase. It might be similar to 2005/06 where a Champions League run comes at the expense of consistent league performances. Or it could be anywhere in between with not a pot in their hands at the end of it all.
November is always a notoriously rough time of year for his teams and there seems no logical reason why this happens on a consistent basis. Maybe Arsene doesn’t like the climate at this time of year and it transmits. I cannot think of any better reason. A team meeting of the ilk of 97/98 might be the best thing. Get everything out in the open, no holds barred, no grudges borne. Clear the air and start afresh. There is a good team spirit apparently so such words should not hurt. That may not happen; if it does, it may not work. But they need to get together, away from the manager and coaching staff, finding the solutions themselves. Whatever they may be, there is an urgent need to solve the problems.