Here’s some video reaction from Wembley. If my arm works well enough I’ll type some more thoughts tomorrow.
Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal
ESPN Player Ratings
Well, that was just what we needed. Arsene Wenger has a fantastic record at Villa Park, and yesterday it brought him everything he would have wished for: a straightforward three points, and goals and garlands for the under-fire duo of Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck.
It might have been so different. Amidst the understandable glee over our first comfortable win of the season, the significance of an early Wojciech Szczesny save has been slightly forgotten. With the game balanced at 0-0, the Pole produced a Schmeichel-esque star-jump to deny Ciaran Clark at close range. On such things can a game hinge.
That fact seemed to be somewhat forgotten after the defeat in Dortmund. Had Welbeck tucked away that presentable opportunity at 0-0, Arsenal would have been ahead and the course of the game diverted. The struggles to keep the Dortmund tide at bay would have been hastily rewritten as last-ditch heroics.
The criticism of the team after the Dortmund game always seemed too much, too soon. Arsenal were really good for long spells against Manchester City, and many fans seemed happy to conveniently forget that off the back of one duff display.
This team is still finding its feet. Arsene has refreshed his attack, and that has prompted a reshuffling of the midfield. At Villa Park, we took a major step forward by reverting back to the system that served us so well for much of last season. The manager lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1, with Jack Wilshere dropping to the bench and taking the 4-1-4-1 with him.
Arsenal immediately looked more at ease. Mesut Ozil shone in a central role, but just as integral to our success was the fact that he had Aaron Ramsey tucked in behind him. From a personal point of view, Ramsey had a poor game: his passing radar is malfunctioning badly, and in his desperation to regain form he is attempting flicks and ticks of unnecessary extravagance. However, playing in a deeper role he was able to provide Mikel Arteta with support and help suppress an energetic Aston Villa midfield. He was below par, but brought balance.
That said, Ozil does deserve special praise. Whatever he says publicly, Arsene Wenger must have toyed with the idea of leaving the German out. However, his faith was repaid when Ozil made two telling contributions in as many minutes to effectively sew up the game.
First he ran beyond the defence to meet a well-weighted Welbeck ball. With the goalkeeper advancing towards him, Ozil relied on his technique, passing the ball expertly in to the corner.
The opening goal gave Arsenal and Ozil’s confidence a real boost, and within seconds they had doubled their advantage. This time, the playmaker reverted to his conventional role as supplier, playing a teasing ball across the six yard box for Welbeck, who capped an intelligent piece of movement by thumping home his first Arsenal goal.
It’s great for Welbeck that he’s got off the mark. The scrutiny he was coming under was absurd given that he’d played just two games for the club against seriously tough opposition. It took Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry around eight games to open their Arsenal accounts. Olivier Giroud didn’t score until the he was picked to face Coventry in the Capital One Cup. Yaya Sanogo, as we all know, has yet to break his duck. That Welbeck has done so inside three games should relieve some of the undue pressure he was under.
I hope so, because he was excellent yesterday. It was often said of Ian Rush that he was the best defensive forward in the league. Welbeck is similar: he sprints back to harry the opposition, ensuring they are never allowed a moment’s rest. When he does get the ball, he uses it well: yesterday he completed 31 of 32 attempted passes. Given the tight spaces centre-forwards operate in, that’s outstanding. Crucially, he also seems to be striking up a good relationship with Ozil. Welbeck has the pace and movement to thrive on Ozil’s creativity, and their combination play yesterday was really exciting.
Kieran Gibbs’ cross was diverted in by Aly Cissokho to gift Arsenal a third goal inside little over three minutes. Yes, Villa collapsed, but Arsenal showed an unfamiliar ruthlessness to profit. It’s certainly nice to be on this side of a capitulation, and it was satisfying too to see us control the game so effectively in the second half.
Both Ozil and Welbeck are likely to get a rest on Tuesday when Arsenal face Southampton in the Capital One Cup. Arsene will want to keep some of the explosive powder that blew Villa away dry for derby day.
ps. You may notice there’s been a bit of a redesign on the blog. I’m sure there’ll be some issues to iron out, but the good news is that the comments section should now be working once again. Please do feel free to contribute! Cheers.
Before the game…
I was asked by People.co.uk to compare Aston Villa to a cartoon character. I suggested Spongebob Squarepants, as he’s young, full of energy, but ultimately not very good at football.
I was wrong. They didn’t have much energy.
Wilshere’s contribution was Ramsey-esque…
In the Welshman’s absence, Jack has really stepped up. Many will point to the fact he’s getting a run in his preferred position, but I also think he’s relishing the added responsibility.
Whenever he praised Ramsey’s heroics earlier this season, I always felt he was masking a nagging envy. There was a lot of, “he’s a great example” and “I hope I can follow what he’s doing”, but the subtext was clear: Wilshere wanted a bit of the glory. Now, finally, he’s getting it.
Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 campaign, Wilshere had just five Arsenal goals to his name. However, the goal he scored against Villa was his fifth of this season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out what that means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In just half a season, Wilshere has doubled his career goals tally for Arsenal. Ramsey’s extraordinary feats have clouded Wilshere’s improving efficiency.
The fact that moments after scoring his goal he won the ball back and created the second tells you everything about his character. Many players would have been content to sit back and soak up the glory for a bit. Not Jack: he was straight back on the front foot. That competitive spirit is invaluable.
Per Mertesacker loves his job…
His job is to defend, and he clearly adores it. For too long Arsenal had defenders who aspired to be footballers. Mertesacker, on the other hand, has embraced his fate.
He’s under no illusions: he couldn’t be a No. 10. With his physical and technical limitations, centre-back is the only position in which he could realistically make a career as a professional footballer. Almost because of that, he is absolutely dedicated to his craft. Unlike the likes of Ozil, he can’t get by simply on talent. He is a student of the game. Scrap that: he’s a professor. A don.
His reaction to conceding the Benteke goal was fabulous. He was furious with Santi Cazorla for ceding possession in such a needless manner. We saw a flash of the rage that Mertesacker turned on Ozil when he failed to applaud the away fans a few weeks back. Behind the meek exterior is the same competitive spirit that drives Wilshere.
The decision not to bring Podolski on will get people talking…
…largely due to his clearly disappointed response.
There’s a few things to say on this. The first is that it’s entirely reasonable and normal for a player to be disappointed at not being used. The second is that Arsene probably made the right choice: when you’re holding on to a lead, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy is certainly more useful than Podolski’s powerful shooting.
However, the noise surrounding Podolski’s uncertain future has not been generated by one isolated incident. It’s been clear since the start of 2013 that Arsene Wenger has issues with selecting the German.
The fact that teenager Serge Gnabry was selected to start over Podolski seems far more significant than the fact he didn’t make it off the bench. As a man with more than 100 caps to his name, Podolski wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t a little irked to have fallen behind the upstart Gnabry in the pecking order.
Arsene has thrown down quite the gauntlet to Podolski here. As I wrote in this piece for ESPN, I fear it could end acrimoniously in the summer. However, perhaps it’s the mother of all motivation techniques. If Podolski is handed an opportunity from the start against Fulham, he’ll certainly feel he has a point to prove.
This wasn’t one of those “mark of champions” performances…
It wasn’t professional. It was sloppy. Arsenal should have had this game wrapped up, but instead slacked off in the second half and allowed Villa back in to it. Given how poor Villa were for most of the game, anything other than three points would have been something of a disaster.
However, we got there in the end. We stumbled but we didn’t slip. Arsenal are back on top of the table. Just how I like it.
I had a vision of a better Arsenal. It was a vision sold to me by Ivan Gazidis, who promised me that after a decade of harsh desert we were approaching an oasis of plenty. It was a vision that sustained me through a summer starved of football.
It seemed entirely plausible: Arsenal were changing. The shifting financial landscape had left us in a position of relative security. Our prudence had paid off, and it was time for the purse-strings to be loosened. Arsenal would challenge for major honours once again.
It was a vision that I, somewhat foolishly, believed in. And it was just a mirage.
The dream evaporated and condensed in to the cold wet reality of a 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa. Some dream. Some start.
Arsenal must be the only club in world football who can begin the summer with a triumphant declaration of renewed spending power, yet plunge in to crisis just one game of the new season. The journey between that zenith and the subsequent nadir has been riddled with negligence and incompetence.
Let’s put this simply: a better Arsenal side would have beaten Aston Villa, regardless of referees and injuries. Arsenal have the resources to build a better team – they spent the early part of the summer boasting publicly about the fact – they have simply neglected to do so.
The buck stops with Arsene Wenger. It is easy to make jokes the vagueness of Gazidis’ role or the clowning of chief negotiator Dick Law, but the truth is that all major decisions on transfer policy are made by one man: Arsene.
My impression is that Gazidis and the board would like to see Arsene spend. However, the manager seems unwilling to let go of the parsimonious habits of the last ten years.
Wenger is fond of challenging reporters to name potential targets:
People always say ‘buy players, buy players, buy players’. When you tell them ‘tell me who?’ it becomes much more problematic.
I’ll play your game, Arsene: Gonzalo Higuain. Luis Gustavo. Etienne Capoue. Paulinho. All of those players are well within our financial grasp and would significantly improve our squad. Two have joined our closest rivals. Arsenal are knowingly allowing the gap to close.
Our squad is in a state of drastic disrepair. A spate of injuries picked up on Saturday means we must travel to Fenerbahce for a crucial Champions League qualifier with a severely weakened team.
There is still time left in this transfer window. What’s more, I fully expect Arsene to embark on another desperate trolley dash before the window closes. However, by then, it may already be too late.
It’s not easy to feel optimistic.
A new season ought to feel fresh. It ought to be a new start. The manager ought to enter the new campaign free of the pressures of the last. However, Arsenal’s disastrous summer has put Arsene Wenger under considerable strain before a ball has even been kicked in anger.
Incredibly, The Gunners are still yet to make a major signing. The dead wood may have gone, but it’s yet to be replaced by any live wood. Arsenal barely have enough players to fill tomorrow’s matchday squad, and the window is just a fortnight away from closing.
I can’t hide my disappointment: this summer has been embarrassing. Our bizarre decision to declare our flush hand at the start of the window seemed hubristic at the time, and has proved so since. Arsenal have lurched from one dead end deal to another. The likes of Clement Grenier, Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Gustavo have all escaped our grasp. Luis Suarez seems certain to join that ever-expanding list.
There are those who will say my judgement is premature. The window is not yet closed, and the situation may yet be put right. Possibly so, but given the resources at our disposal there is no excuse for not having the squad in place before the start of the season. Arsenal face crucial fixtures on both the domestic and European front. Our inactivity means that any early failure will be met by an unforgiving response from the supporters.
If Arsenal fail to beat Aston Villa today, the Emirates will resound with the boos from fans who will understandably feel they have been misled. They were promised statements of intent and a change in policy. Instead they’ve suffered more of the same penny-pinching and indecision.
The one relief about today’s game is that it allows us to concentrate on events on the park rather than inadequacies in the board room.
Football is back. I just wish it felt a bit different.