This was a hard game to write about. There was so much to like and appreciate. But all if it was marred by a few stinkers that make it hard to breathe normally even after a few hours since the game ended.
In the preview, I mentioned that Bent was the kind of striker who thrives on defensive errors. The Gunners made plenty of those to gift the striker a couple of goals in the opening fifteen minutes. It was an uphill batter after that.
I don’t know what Squillaci was doing when he ambled back and strayed from the off-side line. If he’d held his position the Englishman would have been miles off. Simple enough thing to do really.
I don’t know what Sagna was doing when he stopped tracking his man. The former Sunderland striker is not the kind of player who is going to take on a defender and score. I’m convinced Bent would have fluffed his chance if Sagna had gone with the run.
I don’t know what Szczesny was doing for either goal. Thankfully, he is in the good books of the fans and will not be ripped to shreds like Almunia would have been if he’d conceded these goals.
In the past couple of seasons four goalkeepers and a dozen or so defenders have made some ridiculous mistakes at the back. The problem is really serious and deep rooted. A fundamental change is needed and it will not come by signing one or two players. The commentator mentioned that Pat Rice will be staying for another year. I don’t know if that is good news or bad. It’s hard to blame the guy who has given so much to the club over such a long time and has been part of some fantastic achievements. I don’t want to blame him. But that doesn’t mean Arsenal don’t need more and better.
There has to be a radical change in the way everyone at Arsenal thinks about defending and I’m afraid it can only come with outside help. More on this in detail during the summer when we will have to survive without football for a long time.
After those two goals it was all Arsenal but that wasn’t enough.
The first half was tough. There weren’t many chances for the home side. Once again the midfield was struggling to move the ball and the wide players were rendered ineffective. The Villa goal wasn’t being tested as often as we would have liked.
It might all have changed just before the half hour mark when Dunne brought Ramsey down. A penalty and a straight red were the obvious decisions for the officials to make. Not for the first time this season, the officials bottled it when the time came to make a call that would turn the game towards Arsenal.
Soon after Van Persie hit the post. Those were the two best chances of the first half for the Gunners.
Nonetheless, I was really impressed by the second half. Every single player fought hard. They tried everything; crosses, shots from distance, intricate passing, you name it. Still it wasn’t enough. Friedel made some good saves. Villa maintained their shape and got their bodies between shots and the goal.
The goal, can’t really be considered consolation, came in the dying minutes of normal time. Sagna floated in a cross. Bendtner got on the end of it and drew three defenders to the ball, which fell kindly to Van Persie amidst all the chaos. The Dutchman showed calmness and good awareness to put it into the corner giving the keeper no chance.
There were a few positives from the game.
Chamakh showed some good touches. There was a moment in the first half when the Moroccan won the ball at the centre of the Villa half. He had four or five defenders around him and no real support. I liked the way he played it out wide to Walcott and charged into the box. Theo’s cross was a good one but just a bit ahead of the striker’s lunge. That’s plan B. That’s the kind of variation that forces opponents to change their style. We need a lot more of that on a consistent basis. Not for this season but for the future. I also liked the goal he scored. Hard to see a foul there. I have seen our defenders pushed around a lot more.
I also liked the way Gibbs played in the second half after a lacklustre showing in the first forty-five. He offered a lot in attack and defence reminding us of the talent that he possesses. It was as if some invisible shackles had been lifted from the young man. He was a lot more confident in tackling and purposeful with his runs and movement. It reinforces the belief that the present system tends to burden the full-backs a lot, especially on the left, thereby limiting their ability to fulfil their potential. It’s another issue that will need serious work and is related to the main point about defence mentioned earlier.
Bendtner too looked like a real menace whenever he got into the box. His first involvement was winning a header from a corner at the back post which led to a good chance. He also made a vital contribution to the goal. I have no doubt we have enough variety in the squad to develop multiple variations in attack. But it is all driven from the vision of the man at the top.
Finally, it was great to see Vermaelen back in the squad. He offers something extra with his technique and his shooting skills. It wasn’t a fairytale return but I, for one, am pleased to have him back.
Szczesny: Another disappointing game. For the second goal he looked more eager to blame the defenders even before concentrating on saving the shot that went straight through him.
Sagna: Horrible mistake for the second goal. Charged forward without a plan and got in the way of Walcott too often. That issue has to be sorted out.
Squillaci: Just keeps giving people more reasons to dislike him.
Vermaelen: Decent performance on his return after a long time. Looked composed on the ball. Took a couple of shots from distance.
Gibbs: Poor first half, encouraging second half. Some of his tackling was top class. His runs in attacking areas were well timed. Could have done more with his final ball and, on one occasion, his finishing.
Seems like Szczesny has taken over from Almunia is the goalkeeping blunders department. Squillaci just took over Djourou’s recent woeful form. At least Vermaelen was as solid as Koscielny has been in recent weeks. Gibbs gave a glimpse that the talent in him is not completely dead.
Song: Awful. Not sure what he was trying to do. Passing was extremely poor. Wasn’t as close to the defenders as he should have been. Almost gifted a goal to Bent in the second half but Vermaelen’s presence was enough to put the striker off.
Ramsey: One very good run in the box that could and should have changed the game. Showed good skill on occasions but his overall contribution was again very disappointing. Didn’t move the ball well enough and didn’t offer enough of an attacking threat as is expected from a player in that role.
Wilshere: Probably playing on his last legs. Another exhausted effort from the youngster with a few bright moments spread between a largely ineffective performance.
Once again the midfield was quite poor. When the team was tentative early on, they should have dropped back and provided some solidity in front of the defence. Villa were looking to come out and that would have opened up the game for Theo and Arshavin. The coaches and manager on the bench have to drill this message into the players and have to make a decisive contribution from the sidelines if it isn’t working.
Walcott: Has been crowded out way too often in the recent weeks. Has to change flanks more often when that happens. It seems to me that this midfield just doesn’t have an eye for the runs that he makes. Fabregas made it look way too easy. Some of his delivery was excellent.
RvP: Kept plugging away and got his reward at the end. Has to do better with his set-pieces and free-kicks. Strange thing is that he had improved in that department but seems to have regressed. Could be a mental thing related with the form of the team. Wasn’t very effective in a deeper role after Chamakh came on.
Arshavin: Couldn’t offer enough. Another player who got into interesting positions and was ready to make some runs but the midfielder on the ball never spotted it or couldn’t find him.
Subs: Chamakh should have had a goal. Bendtner should have started.
Wenger: Poor choice to start with both Arshavin and Walcott. Substitutions were decent. Should have sent the team out with a plan. Has to be ready for and must prepare his team to deal with the effects of a poor run by playing a more cautious style initially. Cautious isn’t ideal but is better than confused and all over the place.
I want to end by mentioning that there was a lot to observe in this game. There were some classic examples of the weaknesses that this team has. We also saw some genuine glimpses where concentrated effort can result in a stronger, more diverse, and infinitely more threatening performances. More on this after a couple of weeks.