Well…After a summer of missing football, Arsenal fans have been reminded that perhaps the Cricket season isn’t so bad after all. A 3-1 home defeat, marred by poor positional play, more injuries and a shambolic refereeing performance, marks Arsenal’s worst opening day at home since Micky Quinn got a hat-trick for Coventry at Highbury in 1993.
As Arsenal fans we all know the squad isn’t strong enough, and lacks top level quality, but today was less to do with that than the angry and disappointed would have you believe. Sure, we missed the defensive nous of Arteta or another specialist defensive midfielder (more on that later), and a little star quality up front, but today was mostly about one man.
Another one of Mike Riley’s protegees, the young Mancunian official proved himself to be woefully out his depth, having far more influence on this game than any of the players, and as has been so often the way in recent years, Arsenal were his victims. I’ve seen this referee before enough to hold a low opinion of his capacity for the job, and today confirmed it. I would suggest competence rather than bias is the issue.
Villa’s gameplan was one that had worked for them well at Arsenal in previous seasons. Play deep, compete hard in midfield and play on the counter with a team full of pace. They are improving all the time, and Lambert has gained a lot of tactical knowledge over the last year.
The pre-match tension was pretty obvious, and after another poor summer in the transfer market, the Arsenal fan base are pretty close to boiling point. So the relief at the Emirate was palpable when we went one-up after 6 minutes. Starting with great work deep in our half from Jack Wilshere, Arsenal broke down the left hand side when Rosicky beat Vlaar, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain squared it to Giroud on the near side of the 6-yard box and Frenchman tucked it way first time. 1-0.
For the first fifteen minutes the team was playing well. Villa looked dangerous on the break, but Arsenal were flowing in the middle third and looking likely to score again, creating half-chances for Giroud and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
From a somewhat generous free-kick in their own half , Villa excellently constructed the move that led to their first goal. Agbonglahor, who always plays well against us, ran through the gap where Arteta would be and, with a burst of pace that was impressive even from someone as quick as him, beat Koscielny. As Szczesny came out to challenge him, the Villa striker took it round him and, as was caught. Penalty.
Garth Crooks and other equally unbiased (*ahem*) commentators said it should have been a red for the Arsenal keeper, but not only had the Villa man knocked it far too wide from himself to be a real goalscoring chance, bur there two defenders who raced back to be on the line. As it happened, the referee played on long enough to allow Weimann to have a free shot at goal, but he missed. The law and its interpretation is sufficiently woolly that the official could have made an argument to give a penalty and a red, a penalty and a yellow as a he did, and possible even no penalty as Wiemann missed the shot. I have seen Arsenal experience all three before last season.
Benteke stepped up, and though his poor penalty was well saved, but he beat Szczesny to the rebound to make it 1-1.
Game on, and a good contest was bubbling up, and one that would show us how good the respective first 11′s were.
But then the man in the middle started to take over. Villa started systematically fouling Wilshere and Rosicky, having identified them as the creative threats, but without any censorship (and often any free-kick) from the referee, whilst blowing up every time an Arsenal player attempted a tackle. Both Vlaar and Westwood should have been booked for bad, cynical tackles, before the Villa captain was booked for what can only be described as a jumping shoulder block that sent a full-pelt Wilshere cartwheeling through the air. Needless to say the Arsenal man was also booked for expressing how he felt about to the referee.
Arsenal had already been warned that this might not be their day, when Gibbs, who had looked very lively, was injured in a clash of heads with Weimann, and had to be substituted. To add insult to injury, not only was the clash the result of a long ball from another completely phantom Villa free-kick, but the ref chose not to stop the game despite a gushing head wound.
Jenkinson came on, with Sagna moving to left-back, which unfortunately stuffed the left side of our attack and defence. People were moaning about the lack of a natural replacement on the bench, but when you have two experienced internationals who can play in that position also injured, bad luck comes into play. What is it with Arsenal and left backs? Until 2005, we barely had any injuries in that position for two decades, but since then it has been the booby-trapped position. More than once in that period we have been down to 6th choice and worse…
Already jittery for Villa’s opening goal, Szczesny, was apparently possessed by the ghost of Alminia, managing to play right-back, centre-half and keeper in one passage of play, with a poor clearance and good recovery tackle outside his box (while booked), before tipping a long range effort from the Villa midfield round the post. Perhaps he thinks we should go back in for Julio Cesar?
After ignoring a few more cynical fouls on Sagna, Rosicky and Wilshere in quick succession, Taylor proved his random decision generator was still firing by booking Aston Villa’s left-back Luna when he was clearly fouled by Oxlade Chamberlain, right on the stroke of half-time. It was the challenge that ultimately ended the young Englishman’s game.
Half Time 1-1.
So onto the second half with all to play for.
With the Ox coming off, our jet-lagged wizard, Santi Cazorla came on, and we started with good early purpose, despite continued niggling cynical fouls from the visitors, and the booked Wilshere was clearly being targeted for potential retaliation.
Walcott put Giroud through, but the Frenchman couldn’t sort out his feet in time, and his eventual shot was blocked. Soon after, great interplay between Giroud and Rosciky saw the Czech midfielder clean through, but his wasteful finish showed why he isn’t quite the player to be our first choice ‘numero-dix’. Within a minute, Wilshere had been overwhelmed in midfield, and Delph hit the post for Villa from 20 yards out.
It was to be a warning that was not fully heeded.
Soon afterwards Cazorla, who looked terribly off the boil, weakly conceded possession in midfield with his team-mates caught out of position. The ball was played through to Agbonglahor, who again used his pace to drive into the area, before he was stopped by a brilliant tackle by Koscielny.
Or so thought everyone bar the officials. Despite a clear deviation from a touch on the ball, the ref gave a penalty and booked the incredulous Koscielny.
Benteke tucked it away with rather more confidence than his first effort. 1-2.
Within a couple of minutes, the referee completed his sabotage of the game by issuing Koscielny a second yellow card, despite a lack of contact in the tackle he attempted – Nice work from the incredible flying man Wiemann. So just to be clear. No fouls committed, but booked twice and a penalty conceded. He was so keen to send Koscielny off, he gave the free-kick from completely the wrong position. And because it is two yellows, we can’t appeal.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that between the penalty and the sending off, both Vlaar and Westwood had committed the clearest bookable offences without either receiving their second booking.
With Arsenal a goal and a man down, they had to throw men forwards, and for ten minutes had the lion’s share of attacking possession and chances, with both Rosicky and Cazorla brilliantly denied by Guzan late on. Three times Arsenal were stopped when breaking forwards by the referee’s unwillingness to play the same advantage rule that he had allowed the visitors for their first goal.
Wilshere had a late penalty appeal turned down when he was obstructed in the box, but for the first time since Villa’s first penalty, the ref got that one right.
With the clock approaching injury time, and Arsenal throwing caution to the wind, they were caught on the break from a set-piece. Villa’s debutant left-back, Luna, who had been wrongly booked in the first half, was rewarded for a good performance and a willingness to attack by running clean through from half-way and expertly finishing into the corner. 1-3.
There was still time for Wilshere to get booted into the sky twice more and for Arsenal’s day to get worse with an injury for Sagna in *ahem* injury time.
The final whistle was met with a chorus of boos, and shouts of “Spend some f*cking money”, as the impotent anger at the officiating found a target it could land on. After the complete failure of the transfer window so far, its no surprise. Arsenal weren’t great, with only really Rosicky (bar his finishing), Koscielny (despite the referee’s mistakes) and Wilshere (despite getting no protection and being kicked from pillar to post) came out of today with much credit. Villa, on the other hand, executed their game plan successfully. It was striking that in complementing their performance, the commentator said they had “got older, tougher and more cynical”. Instructive about the difference between playing the right way and winning in English football.
Interviewed after the Game, Jack Wilshere summed things up:
“We’re not happy, we’ve got to look at ourselves. We’ve got a big qualifier coming up in the Champions League. There can be no mistakes now – we’ve got to push on. We’ve got to pick ourselves up and go again.
“We felt good going in, confident and started well. But we dropped our level. We tried to pick it up again but they got the penalty.”
As for Arsene Wenger:
“We started well but, after that, everything went wrong – injuries, decisions, going down to 10 men and the chances missed. It was a bad day, not on the quality of our display but everything went against us.”
“I’m not happy with the (second penalty) decision but I’m more unhappy with the spirit the referee let the game go in, I was quite amazed.”
While he is right was Anthony Taylor’s Man of the Match performance for Villa that defined the game, embarrassing officiating doesn’t change certain facts.
Every Arsenal fan in the world knows we needed to buy a top striker with good movement, a defensively minded midfielder who can cover for Arteta or win the ball alongside him, and some more cover at the back. On a day where the first two were perfectly illustrated, more injuries mean and a farcical suspension mean we might not even have enough defenders to play four at the back in our next two fixtures. Quite apart from a lack of signings, it shows the absolute folly of letting Miquel and Aneke go on loan before we had brought anyone else in.
As Jack said about the boos at the end:
”It is understandable, they pay their money to watch us and we need to put in better performances and win games. My message to them is to stick with us – it’s a long season.”
Even an endless optimist and believer in the current players like myself can’t help feeling badly let down by those in charge of our club. We are approaching our almost annual £40m fixture that we fight all season to get, and will probably struggle to fill our bench. Regardless of injuries, for the 7th richest club in the world, it is shambolic.
I have been criticised for not condemning the manager this summer and in previous years, but make no mistake, if he fails to at least make the three signings outlined above (and hopefully more!), then it will impossible for me to support him, as such a failure would be a dereliction of duty.
Today was all about a bald man from Manchester being out of his depth. The rest of the season, and Arsene’s future at the club, is all about the next two weeks.
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