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Arsenal the villains as Villa show the value of being Bent

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 2

Van Persie 89; Bent 11, 15

Arsenal lost their last home league fixture of the season for the first time in 14 years as Darren Bent made them pay for two sloppy early defensive errors. Aston Villa were subsequently able to repel the home side’s laborious attempts at a comeback, aided by a series of questionable officiating decisions. The only bright points for the home side were yet another goal for the prolific Robin van Persie and the successful return of Thomas Vermaelen after nearly nine months out through injury.

A reshuffled central defence saw Vermaelen and Sébastien Squillaci start after Johan Djourou (ankle) and Laurent Koscielny (thigh) were ruled out. Other than those two enforced changes, this was the same side which capitulated so tamely at Stoke last week.

Szczęsny

Sagna– Squillaci – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Wilshere

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Two basic errors, two goals

Let’s get the excuses out of the way first. On another day, Arsenal could easily have won this game against a Villa side which did little aside from their two goals. Referee Michael Oliver blew for questionable fouls in each half by van Persie and Marouane Chamakh which denied them a pair of seemingly legitimate scores, and a first-half lunge by Richard Dunne on Aaron Ramsey in which the defender made contact with player not ball also went unpunished.

Having said all that, Arsenal did not deserve to win.

Squillaci had a terrible game and was directly responsible for conceding the opener (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After a lethargic start in which neither team distinguished themselves but the visitors had been the more industrious, two basic carbon-copy errors gifted Bent – who is increasingly looking like a January bargain at £24m – a pair of chances which he took with some aplomb. First a ball-watching Squillaci played Bent onside, and the England striker chested the ball and struck a fine volley with the outside of his right boot. Then, four minutes later, Bacary Sagna did likewise, allowing Bent a one-on-one chance which he finished with casual ease. It was his fifth goal in his last five starts against Arsenal.

15 minutes gone. 0-2. They would be Villa’s only goal attempts in the half.

As has been the case too often this season, Arsenal’s response to going behind was tentative at best. In the first half-hour, a couple of crosses from Theo Walcott and Sagna was the sum total of Arsenal’s threat.

But then Jack Wilshere and Ramsey, both industrious throughout, combined to create the game’s first moment of controversy. Ramsey darted towards the Villa box. Wilshere spotted his run and lifted the ball over the top. Dunne came across and lunged in desperately just as the Welshman was about to pull the trigger. He missed the ball altogether and appeared to touch Ramsey. Referee Oliver waved play on.

Three times in the final 15 minutes of the half Arsenal had opportunities to pull one back, and it was no coincidence that it was two of their most committed players, van Persie and Vermaelen, who were at the heart of things. First van Persie wriggled free in the box and lashed his angled drive against the bar. Shortly after Vermaelen’s determination ensured he was first to meet a corner, but his powerful header went just over. And finally, on the stroke of half-time, van Persie spun away from Dunne who, having stuck his foot between the Dutchman’s, appeared to trip himself up. Van Persie advanced and squared to offer Ramsey an easy tap-in, but the defender’s tumble was adjudged to have been the result of foul play. It looked a harsh decision.

Notwithstanding their late chances, Arsenal were booed off by an Emirates crowd featuring a fair number of empty seats. It’s hard to argue they didn’t deserve it.

Too little, too late

Squillaci’s reward for a half in which he had been back on his heels throughout and directly responsible for conceding the opener was to be replaced by Chamakh, with Alex Song moving into the back four – although the Cameroon international would effectively remain in midfield as Villa were increasingly content to leave ten men behind the ball at all times.

With the added firepower up front, Arsenal started the second half with more urgency but without end product. The disappointing Andrey Arshavin shot straight at Brad Friedel. Walcott whipped in a superb cross which just evaded Chamakh. Nicklas Bendtner replaced Arshavin and immediately teed up Walcott, who spun and shot wide from five yards.

The home fans, growing weary of their team’s lack of cutting edge, broke into a chant of “6%? You’re having a laugh!” in reference to the club’s untimely decision to increase season ticket prices.

Van Persie's 17th league goal was little more than a consolation (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The closing minutes saw Arsenal pressing forward with increasing desperation, and they should have been rewarded with a goal in the 76th minute. Walcott whipped in a delightful cross which Chamakh rose to head in at the far post, but the officials called it back for the slightest of pushes. Again, it looked awfully harsh.

Half-chances came and went. Song and Ramsey saw shots blocked, and Friedel did well to block another effort by van Persie. But the Dutchman was not to be denied, tapping in from five yards out with a minute left in normal time after great persistence by Bendtner in the box. It was no more than a consolation, but it was nonetheless van Persie’s 17th Premier League goal of the season, all of which have been scored since the turn of the year. As the rest of the side has crumbled around him, the striker has been Arsenal’s one shining light in the gathering gloom.

However, the final whistle confirmed another home defeat – Arsenal’s fourth at the once impregnable Emirates – and Manchester City can now push the Gunners down to fourth with victory over Stoke in mid-week. The players’ reward for their lackadaisical and frankly unprofessional approach to the title run-in will now most likely be a truncated summer break and the prospect of a potentially awkward Champions League qualifier at the start of next season. For that, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match, Arsène Wenger bemoaned his team’s sluggish start to the game:

We dropped three points today which could cost us the automatic qualification for the Champions League.

We were punished because we went into the game too tentative. We were not dominant enough in anything we did and we were on the back foot at the start. After that we battled to get back into the game but we were a bit unlucky. I feel we had a penalty, a goal that I have not seen cancelled often away from home. Overall of course we are frustrated and I am frustrated by the performance.

And he commented on whether he feels pressure from the fans to spend in the summer:

The fans want to win football games. They will not check how much money we spend, they want to win football games. When we don’t, they are not happy and that is completely normal. We will try to strengthen our team, of course, but the best way to keep our fans happy is to win the games.

I have written at length over the past few weeks about the lack of a winning mentality and the ‘right’ attitude in too many of Arsenal’s players, but yet again it was two basic defensive errors which cost them dear. Squillaci in particular has shown himself over the course of this season to be a passive, positional defender who lacks aggression – he is simply not good enough – but as a team Arsenal defended poorly. Sagna’s error was uncharacteristic and Vermaelen looked surprisingly sharp after his long absence, but Kieran Gibbs showed flashes of both brilliance and naivety – as he has done all season – which suggest he is not yet ready to step up to the first team permanently. Gary Cahill has often been mentioned as a transfer target, but I’m a fan of Blackburn‘s Christopher Samba. And if Gaël Clichy should move on in the summer, I would love to see Leighton Baines offered the chance of regular European football.

In midfield, Song has had an up-and-down season and I cannot help but feel the balance is wrong. An experienced hand like relegated West Ham‘s Scott Parker would add considerable steel to Arsenal’s midfield and complement the talents of the existing players well.

Up front, although van Persie has been on an incredible scoring streak since January, I wonder if he would be more effective playing in the Bergkamp role behind a powerful number nine. Whether either Chamakh or Bendtner have sufficient quality to be that front man is debatable. But what about Asamoah Gyan, who combines pace and power with a decent scoring record – ten goals in 30 league games – at far-from-prolific Sunderland?

For van Persie to play in the Bergkamp role would be contingent on either Cesc Fàbregas‘s departure – which may well happen, but I’m not advocating it – or a change in formation. Should Fàbregas leave, I would like to see us experimenting with a 4-4-1-1 which could look something like this:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Samba – Vermaelen – Baines

Walcott – Parker – Wilshere – Nasri

van Persie

Gyan

It’s just a thought, anyway, and one of a number of possible permutations. The only certain thing is that this will be one of the most important summers in Arsenal’s history. With Manchester City breaking into the top four, Liverpool resurgent and Tottenham likely to bounce back, the club will need to take a couple of steps forward just to stand still, let alone compete for silverware deeper into the season.

Arsenal finish next Sunday with the short trip across town to Fulham with third spot now in the balance, but out of their direct control. I suspect most fans now cannot wait for a season which promised so much in its first six months to end.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

6 Responses to Arsenal the villains as Villa show the value of being Bent

  1. Astonvillaforever says:

    Only two shots first half maybe but we controlled it easily and away from home thats all you need. Second half as we have lost 26 points from winning positions this season, then rightly so GMac pretected the lead, you were at home your job to attack, dont blame the Villa for a game plan it happens to us all the time at VP. and talking of supporters booing we were slated by the press one game for booing O,Neil I hope you get the same treatment. Give credit where credits due we were the better team and the following faithful showed what real supporters are. Crap season, manager walk out 5 days before the start of the season, injuries no tranfers window at the start of the season, 2 managers, horrendous injuries, smallheath winning the league cup, in house fighting and still they show support lik they did today, how many other clubs in the league would do the same after our season.. top top supporters. You think you have things to moan about youve seen nothing..and by the way you also had the backing from us to beat the Mancs to the title and the scum in the league cup and you let us down big time i’m afraid

    • Tim says:

      As I said in the post, Arsenal did not deserve to win.

      I’m neither disputing your tactics nor the fact you deserved to win. There have been many times I wish we had concentrated on being more solid defensively away from home, so GMac’s tactics were spot on. And although you were lucky with a number of refereeing decisions that’s how things go sometimes – we simply did not threaten you consistently enough until the very end of the game.

      You have had a terrible season all around, but at least you have finished well enough to avoid the relegation squabble. And though I laughed at the £24m fee for Bent initially, he has proven to be excellent value. He is exactly the sort of finisher we could have done with.

      The disappointment from an Arsenal fan’s point of view is that the season promised so much, but the players have let us down yet again. I don’t mind losing to better teams, but I do mind when the team’s attitude is as wrong as it currently is. I’m not one for booing at games myself, but the booing yesterday is understandable because the fans know the players have given up on the season, and that is unacceptable. Add to that the 6% increase to what are already the most expensive season tickets in the Premier League, and you can see why people are disgruntled. There is certainly an element of the home support which – misguidedly – believes they are entitled to see us win trophies, but as a fan who grew up with the side during the relatively barren period from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, I’m not one of them.

      Things could certainly be much worse for us than they are – as my West Ham-supporting friends will testify today!

      Your fans were magnificent yesterday. As are our travelling support. I used to go to half a dozen away games a season, and it’s on the road where every club’s best supporters can be found.

      With the best will in the world, you will hopefully understand when I say I don’t give two hoots that Arsenal let you down in the league and the Carling Cup. The team let their own fans down – and more importantly they let themselves down.

  2. Sheree says:

    Fan’s expectations – impossible to manage!

    • Tim says:

      Indeed!

      While being really very fortunate at key moments yesterday, you came to the Emirates to do a job and you did it. We turned up for a bit of a kick-about and got exactly what we deserved – nothing. I do have sympathy for the fans who bemoan the rise in ticket prices. I don’t have sympathy for those who say that six years without a trophy is the end of the world. It’s bitterly disappointing, yes, but … West Ham?

      With the financial rewards that come with Champions League football, these are worrying times for Arsenal. I would say there are now six genuine contenders for the four coveted spots – ourselves, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, City and the annoying neighbours from down the road. (And in a good season, that number extends to clubs like Everton and yourselves.) There is a small but growing faction in Arsenal’s fan base which is vocal in wanting Wenger’s head. While Arsene has certainly made mistakes these last couple of years, who are we going to replace him with who can do better and not run the risk of dropping out of the top four altogether?

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