In the preview I was talking about how every possible result was conceivable. The opening minutes gave the impression that this could be a comfortable win. Then there was a period when the team switched into the allow-the-opposition-back-into-the-game mode. At half time many fans must still have been confident that a result could be ground out. Anthony Taylor did his thing and Villa took the lead. For a while, even at 1-2, and then with only 10 men, it seemed like the players were fighting and a draw was possible. In the end, the worst possible outcome ensured there will be tremendous pressure on the manager and the players for foreseeable future unless they string together a run of form that is, at the moment, inconceivable.
Given the lack of depth on the bench and the frustrations of the summer transfer window, it’s easy to understand why many fans instinctively linked this result with a failure to sign quality players. There is a correlation there and top class players always help a team, that much is undeniable. Similarly, there is no possible rational way to suggest this squad does not need additions. However, I find the lack of action in the transfer market to be a separate problem and don’t believe the result of this game was down to the blank slate labelled ‘New Acquisitions’.
The point here is not to defend the state of affairs as they stand but to focus on the actual problems from this game, which, if you think really hard, are actually a lot more alarming than Arsenal’s inability to sign players. You might not realize this right now but if the issues we saw on the pitch are not addressed, new players are not going to make a big enough impact. With that thought in mind I don’t want to spend too much time on transfer talk in this article. Let’s stick to the events of the game.
The start was, as previously noted, quite comfortable. I thought Villa were a bit tentative and lacked cohesiveness, a problem we’ll later associate with the Gunners. They set out to defend around the centre line but their pressing wasn’t coordinated across the board. The hosts found it fairly easy to move the ball around and the goal came from a fairly simple sequence of events despite the length that the ball travelled on the pitch.
Wilshere’s composure and ability to turn and lose his man started it deep on the left in the Arsenal half. Rosicky held off Vlaar’s pressure and turned away from him into space, which resulted in a broken back line for the visitors. Oxlade-Chamberlain held his run and was released into acres of space. Giroud was completely free in the box and guided it in deftly.
After the goal the Gunners maintained decent possession but signs of trouble were visible as early as the 10th minute when Arsenal’s 4-4-2 off-the-ball shape was visibly static as Villa exploited space down their left flank. That particular move didn’t result in a highlights-worthy moment but Lambert’s men, or boys, were slowly growing into the game. In contrast, Wenger’s wards were slowly drifting away as they couldn’t quite decide the level of risk they needed to take or the kind of intensity that had to be maintained. After the goal I don’t recall any noteworthy chance being created in the first half.
This lack of clarity from a tactical point of view (often after an early lead has been taken) has been a long standing problem and has cost the team valuable points over the last couple of seasons. It paralyzes the team, creates the impression that players don’t care, and gives the opposition greater belief and momentum.
Once the visitors realized they could get something from this game it was only a matter of when, not if, they were going to score. The equalizer was an unbearably soft goal to concede made worse only by its sheer predictability as Ramsey and Wilshere combined to leave a massive hole in front of the defence that sucked Koscielny in and made Agbonlahor look like Messi for a moment.
The goal obviously gave Villa greater confidence and that in turn helped them with their defensive structure and solidity. They also went increasingly harder for the 50-50s with the referee seemingly keen on levelling the technical disparity between the sides.
Six minutes just after the hour mark changed everything with utter incompetence being the kindest words one could choose for the Ref’s performance. A seemingly excellent tackle was deemed to be a foul and a penalty awarded to Villa with a Yellow card given to Koscielny. Soon after the Frenchman was sent off for a second bookable offence, which, while it can be considered a yellow-card offence, was the kind of challenge most officials let slide with a stern warning. There is no doubt Taylor played a starring role in Villa’s victory but blaming him for the defeat would cover over way too many cracks in the Gunner ranks.
We have to wonder why Arsenal keep getting into such messy defensive situations on so frequent a basis. How can a ‘proven player’ and a ‘star acquisition’ like Cazorla be so lax as he was when Agbonlahor pinched his pocket in the build up to the second goal. From what should be a harmless position just inside the Villa half from Arsenal’s point of view, it took the Englishman three unchallenged touches to get into the hosts’ penalty area. It’s said that you make your own luck but in Arsenal’s case with a complete lack of shape or defensive awareness it was more of a matter of inviting your own misfortune.
Having had the booking, one could again say Koscielny should have been a lot more careful. But while going forward in search of the equalizer the Gunners again left gaping holes in front of the defence and the Frenchman succumbed to his own aggressive temperament. A long punt forward, which was just a clearance and bounced off the back of Benteke’s head, actually fell to the rapidly advancing Weimann with no midfielder/fullback in a position to support the central defenders. I don’t know of any other club with pretentions of being one of the top European sides that gets into a tragi-comic defensive disarray this often and as easily.
At the end of last season there was genuine effort and improvement in this regard but, as I’d noted at that time, it came at the cost of offensive potency and was not something Wenger was going to live with for too long. Arsenal need that calibre of collective defending AND have to find greater incision and goal threat in conjunction with that. Focus on flair and attacking desire that comes at the cost of stability at the back will often lead to situations where the team starts conceding chances and loses confidence. As we’ve seen, confidence once lost can be a very hard thing to regain.
A related observation was that Arsenal did seemingly try to emulate the German 4-4-2 with the advanced midfielder pressing alongside the striker but most of the Gunners lack the tactical know-how to execute that in a ruthless and efficient manner with minimum risk. I should not single Arsenal out though, as I’d discussed here it’s an approach that the German clubs appear to have refined with years of work. Most other teams are not as efficient and effective at executing it. This won’t click for Wenger and his players any time soon and could be a very risky strategy for the short term.
Despite going down to 10 men the Gunners should get credit for their fighting spirit. Rosicky and Cazorla could have brought the team level but Guzan produced quality saves.
Villa’s third goal killed the game and it was again a very soft, typical Arsenal gift – Corner to the Gunners, goal/chance to the opponents. How often have we seen that?! When Cazorla took that ill-advised shot from outside the box you could see 10 Villa players in their own box and one just outside in the arc on the edge of the penalty area. The eventual goalscorer was the same guy who blocked Cazorla’s shot on the edge of the box!
Arsenal had six players beyond the 18 yard line including Walcott near the corner flag, Cazorla was on the edge of the box, and two players were behind him. How does a team go from that to a clear one-v-one for the opponent against their goalkeeper within a matter of second with just one worthwhile pass?! The lack of defensive awareness and the tendency to get lost in ball-watching is beyond alarming, it’s been one of the core issues preventing Arsenal from fulfilling the potential the team otherwise has. This isn’t an issue one or two transfers can solve unless Wenger finds the perfect coach to add to his team.
There are a couple of other issues that are worth discussing. Arsenal struggled against Villa’s physical challenges in this game, some of which were clearly fouls, but it wasn’t that Lambert had sent out a particularly physically imposing side. While the physicality angle was clearly visible, it wasn’t so much about physical attributes as it was about the manifestation of confidence and tactical clarity in the form of greater desire and sharpness. On the other hand, Arsenal were slower in the minds than is needed for the kind of game they want to play because of a lack of tactical clarity and this resulted in a reactionary performance rather than a proactive and dominant one.
The other point is that Villa didn’t win this game by having better individuals on the pitch, they won it by having better cohesive output (with a generous dose of luck). In that sense, buying more players is not going to help Arsenal if they cannot have the whole unit on the same tactical page. Of course, one might say for that to happen a clearly comprehensible tactical blueprint must first exist but that’s a whole different can of worms that I don’t want to touch right now.
Szczesny: Got lucky with the first penalty but didn’t have any control on the save as it went straight back to Benteke. Might have been sent off if the ref hadn’t played advantage. Not a confidence-inspiring display.
Sagna: Took a lot of blows and a serious fall for the team’s cause, also did a decent job at left back. Did not make any sort of a meaningful offensive contribution and it might have been better if he’d stayed a little deeper. For instance, it might have been easier for him to track Weimann’s run that got Koscielny his second yellow card.
Mertesacker: Had a steady enough game.
Koscielny: Very unfortunate to concede the penalty and the subsequent sending off was also harsh. But he should also know how to stay on his feet, particularly after he’s been booked. This wasn’t a day he’d like to remember.
Gibbs: Was looking good before he picked up that injury. It’s one of the smaller details but his presence would have helped the team’s balance.
Jenkinson: He was effective in a conservative role at the start of last season and needs to go back to that. Focus on defending and get it right, keep things simple, and the rest will come later. At the moment he looks a bit out of his depth when he tries to emulate the level of involvement that Sagna offers.
It couldn’t have been a great day at the office for the defenders if the team conceded three goals but the quality of officiating and the performance of the midfield does lessen the blame falling on their shoulders.
Ramsey: Work rate was excellent and he was trying till the very end but I thought he should have played more horizontally in Arteta’s absence and left Wilshere more room a little further up the pitch.
Rosicky: MotM, if one can be given after such a performance and result. Desire was always there and he was involved with everything Arsenal did offensively including the pre-assist for the goal, the two chances that he created for himself with clever one-twos, and the chance for Cazorla. His ability to beat the opponents in one-v-ones was excellent. Finishing could have been better. Needs to graduate from unnecessary and risky sliding tackles to a more intelligent form of defending.
Wilshere: Another one whose effort cannot be questioned and he does bring something special to the side, just not on a consistently decisive basis to cover up his lack of defensive awareness and recovery pace. There is a big learning curve in front of him if he has to go from a massive potential to a truly big player. Does deserve better protection from the referee.
Cazorla: Didn’t look ready but that doesn’t excuse the kind of performance he put in. Let his teammates and coaches down badly, not to mention the fans. His touch was poor, bordering on careless at times and that resulted in two turnovers that got Koscielny booked. Very bad choice to shoot from the edge of such a crowded box when a better pass down the inside channel was available. Having taken the shot he should have been alert to Luna’s movement but instead was simply watching the ball. Very disappointing from an experienced pro.
The midfield did not do enough to protect the defence and they did not have enough guile, skill, or coordination to offensively compensate for their defensive lapses. There is a strong case to be made for a top class defensive signing, particularly now that Diaby and Coquelin are also not there. But that doesn’t mean the players who are there shouldn’t be doing much better.
Walcott: Not his kind of game. Villa played deep and narrow for large periods and he was crowded out whenever he got near the penalty box. Nobody found him with a ball in behind with Wilshere missing the best opportunity by under-hitting a pass. He is a limited player and when the team can’t play to his strengths he will make a limited contribution. Surprising that he takes free-kicks.
Giroud: Good goal, combined beautifully with Rosicky on a couple of occasions, and another player whose effort was top notch. Finishing quality has always been average and that showed in some of the half-chances that he got. Needs to bring others into the game more often but that’s a matter of developing collective instincts.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Did well to hold his run and picked his pass well for the assist. Has to make himself available more often and be involved more. This was still a very individualistic performance from a player who has the potential but lacks the knowhow to benefit from his teammates’ skills.
All the three have something special to offer but they also have their own sets of limitations. In a game like this where the opponents gain confidence and hold their shape while the Gunners lose their tactical clarity, it’s always more likely that the limitations are exposed rather than their skills shining through. Again, there is a strong case to be made for buying a world class player who can make things happen but I’m not convinced there are too many around who would come to Arsenal (I don’t put Higuain in that category as he too has many limitations, Suarez might be the only (fading) hope).
Subs: Podolski came on very late in the game and I’ve covered the other two above.
Wenger: He will get a lot of flak for lack of signings but I’m more concerned by his inability to strike a balance between attack and defence for the duration of a season irrespective of the players he has out on the pitch. In my opinion this is linked with not having coaches from countries that are a little more advanced tactically and technically when compared to England/Britain.Follow @goonerdesi