Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 0
Aston Villa away is ordinarily a weekender as far as I'm concerned. With family in Kings Norton, tying the fixture in with a visit to my sister is an annual event. So on Friday evening I took a train into Birmingham and headed straight for a curry house for beer, port and, errr, curry. So meeting the chaps at around 1pm on Saturday, one's guts felt rather like they were melting. Nevertheless, with the German market in the city until Christmas, beer and sausage (and maybe a carousel too, I can't and won't confirm) was the pre match order of the day.
The rain and wind were plentiful as we made our way to Witton and then the narrow, cramped staircases into the upper tier of Villa Park. Understandably, Arsene made some changes with Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson coming in for Bacary Sagna, homas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere. The first half was a drab affair to say the least, with both terms lacking inspiration, if not perspiration. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain cut to the by line on the right and pulled back for the lively Aaron Ramsey (one of the few Arsenal players for whom the adjective 'lively' applied), whose shot was beaten away by Brad Guzan's feet.
The unctuous conditions saw Szczesny slide out of the penalty area with the result of a free kick to Villa just outside the box. Bannan sent a wicked delivery into the area, it was deflected goalwards by Ron Vlaar and Andreas Weimann swept the ball into the net. Fortunately, the linesman's flag spared Arsenal. Per Mertesacker made an outstanding last ditch tackle (the German hasn't conceded a single foul in ten games)on Gabriel Agbonlahor, who embarrassingly tried to convince Lee Mason he had been fouled by the German.
Arsenal's best opportunity of the game arrived when Laurent Koscielny brought the ball out of defence and swept the ball out to the left flank. Giroud had moved wide and Koscielny continued his run into the area unchecked. Giroud's low cross found his compatriot, but the ball was ever so slightly behind him as he lifted it over the ball. At half time, it felt as though Arsenal needed more impetus and energy in their play. Podolski and Chamberlain's influence was minimal, Cazorla didn't have enough movers and shakers ahead of him to try and supply.
The Gunners initially looked as though they would improve the flat first half showing. Cazorla and Giroud exchanged passes on the edge of Villa's area and Santi's swinging left foot shot whistled just past the post. Ramsey stabbed a Chamberlain cross just wide after a well timed run into the area. But Arsenal's rhythm was never assured enough to build a consistent stream of pressure. Villa recognised this about mid way through the second half and clearly thought they had a shot at winning the game, having contained Arsenal comfortably enough.
Holman fed Agbonlahor on the left inside the penalty area, Agbonlahor shifted the ball onto his right foot, but Szczesny was equal to his low shot. The Polish goalkeeper showed his full value though five minutes later. Arsenal have ditched last season's pressing game in favour of staying back and holding a solid shape. The down side of this is that opposing players have often been able to advance unchallenged on the edge of Arsenal's area. See Grant Holt's winner for Norwich. Holman advanced thirty yards out and cracked a fizzing shot which Szczesny tipped onto the crossbar. That's the value of having a top class goalkeeper and I firmly believe we have one in Wojciech Szczesny. His stunning reflexes were the difference between one point and none in a drab performance. In turn, Ramsey toe poked a slow shot goalwards from the edge of the area, which almost crept inside Brad Guzan's front post.
Arsenal began to pile on the pressure in the final third of the game, but to little avail. Arshavin and Gervinho came on to try and give Aston Villa a different problem. Arsene Wenger drew the ire of a pretty uppity crowd when he replaced Giroud with Coquelin. Chants of 'you don't know what you're doing!' and 'we want our Arsenal back' (which I take to be another way of saying, 'we want Arsenal to win all the time') rang through the away enclosure.
Arsene's fighting against the tide with the support nowadays. I offer no real defence of a lethargic performance or the fact that we only have one centre forward in our squad. But sometimes substitutions aren't as straight forward as they look. On the face of it, taking a striker off and putting a defensive midfielder on looks negative. But shifting the shape of a team who weren't causing their opponents enough problems makes sense. But ultimately, the support made their stance clear last night. They were effectively saying, 'Unless you're winning, we're not with you. We'll be openly hostile until you're in a position whereby you are winning.' Frustration bubbles under the surface and the slightest ignition unleashes a powder keg of supporter discontent. It's uncomfortable watching Arsenal games at the moment. A lot of people seem really genuinely unhappy about going to Arsenal games now. A lot of people appear to really hate being there. Which, of course, they're entitled to feel if they so wish. I guess from my own subjective viewpoint, I regard that as a shame.
The substitution very nearly worked in an attacking sense. Coquelin, who is more of a mover and a shaker when our team was overly loaded with ball horders, made a powering run in behind the Villa defence in injury time and collected Chamberlain's clever ball. Villa will not have had anyone detailed to look after any thrusting threat Coquelin might provide. Alas, when he ran in behind the Villa defence into the channel, he collected the ball in a promising position, but when a calm head was required to pick out an Arsenal attacker, he absolutely launched the ball into orbit.
I understood the changes that the manager made and felt they were all perfectly viable. Our lack of alternative striking options is a concern that will require January surgery. I would regard four points taken from away matches at Aston Villa and Everton a good return at the beginning of the weekend. I must confess I was expecting three of those points to arrive yesterday, but then, as the discontent of the away support showed, expectation can kill. Football's a game of fine margins, had Coquelin got his cross right in injury time, we could be talking about a smash and grab away win amidst a less than dazzling performance. But he didn't, so the manager must face the awkward line of questioning he clearly took exception to last night. 5 wins in 13 Premier League games isn't really the sort of return that creates comfortable questioning.
Talking about players feeling jaded is all very well, but in the likes of Arteta, Cazorla and probably Giroud, we have some players that will be expected to play 90 minutes in every match that they're fit for. Ultimately because Arsene doesn't trust certain members of the squad to perform the same job. He spoke of not playing Wilshere, which is sensible enough. But it reveals a weakness in the squad when he bought Wilshere to be a wallflower on the bench in any case. I wonder if Thomas Eisfeld would have been a better option as a substitute than a player which the manager admits he had no intention of using. LD.
ASTON VILLA: 24.GUZAN, 16.LOWTON, 4,VLAAR (c) (29.Lichaj '51), 6.CLARK, 26.STEVENS, 8.EL AHMADI (14.Holman '63), 15.WESTWOOD, 25.BANNAN, 11.AGBONLAHOR, 24.WEIMANN (12.Albrighton '90), 20.BENTEKE. Unused: 1.Given, 7.Ireland, 16.Delph, 21.Lowry.
ARSENAL: 1.SZCZESNY, 25.JENKINSON, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS, 8.ARTETA (c), 16.RAMSEY, 19.S.CAZORLA, 15.CHAMBERLAIN (23.Arshavin '77), 9.PODOLSKI (27.Gervinho '70), 12.GIROUD (22.Coquelin '85). Unused: 3.Sagna, 5.Vermaelen, 10.Wilshere, 24.Mannone.