CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Arsenal embarrassed at home to Aston Villa

Players look disinterested in crushing loss

08 November, 2020 — By Richard Osley at the Emirates Stadium

FA Premier League
ARSENAL 0
ASTON VILLA 3 (Saka og 25, Watkins 72, 75)

YES, it was raining. And the team had played as recently as Thursday night, one or two of them at least. And yes, there’s a worldwide pandemic going on and everyone has the right to be feeling a little blue about that.

But Arsenal’s players, and maybe their manager, now desperately need a deep examination into where their love for the task of… simply playing football matches… has gone. The privilege looks like a pain to nearly all of them, certainly against an excitable Aston Villa team who alternatively look chuffed just to be on the pitch when most people have been told to lock themselves up at home.

At times this season, Arsenal have been dull. Even the victories have been wars of attrition, apart from the opening day party at Fulham.

But worse now, they are not only dull but also ineffective and, quite sad to see, apparently lacking any thirst for being Premier League footballers. Whatever made these group of men want to be soccer stars as boys and no doubt tell everyone they’d do anything to follow that dream has been suffocated in a mess of sheepish looks.

They look like somebody has asked them to do the bleep test for 90 minutes rather than play football.

Tonight’s defeat could be summed up in the menacing smile of Jack Grealish and the youthful delight of Ollie Watkins, the tormentors in chief here but players who, win or lose, were going to enjoy being in the game.

Their enthusiasm and energy was the key difference.

Aston Villa aren’t Bayern Munich or Juventus, after all,  but their team spirit overrode anything a sulky Arsenal could put together at the Emirates.

Arteta’s team could hardly manage a shot on goal in reply, and yet nobody looked worried about defeat, nobody looked determined to rescue the match. This truly was one of the worst of performances if only for that total lack of spark.

The man who is supposed to inspire them then can’t be above criticism. Arteta does not seem to know who his best players are nor how to fit them together, and perhaps most worryingly remains wedded to a cup run strategy which Premier League sides of varying ability are finding they can actually play through.

When the Gunners go behind, it’s like turning a submarine to get them into attacking mode.

Simply being better than Unai Emery isn’t enough. It’s up to Arteta to draw the best out of a crew of fairly talented players, who shouldn’t be approaching each match in such a funk.

Into November, and it’s hard to think of a game this season in which Arteta has got them purring, if you discount that generously easy first match at Craven Cottage.

The warning sign came tonight in a matter of seconds when John McGinn bashed the ball into the top corner after accepting a pass from Grealish, who had put Rob Holding into a spin.

After a long deliberation and a look at the screen, the goal was ruled out because offside Ross Barkley was obscuring Bernd Leno’s view of the shot. If he had been able to see it coming or not, Leno wouldn’t have saved it, so this was a let off.

But not one that Arsenal learned from.

Aston Villa scored a goal that would count on 25 minutes after constructing  a grid of passes that again had Holding chasing his tail.

It had begun, however, when Willian shoved a lazy back pass straight to the Villa attack. The ball was eventually spun across the six yard box, evading four Arsenal players, before Bukayo Saka bounced it in his own goal under pressure from Trezeguet.

Villa deserved the lead and apart from one header on the stretch, Alexandre Lacazette was isolated up front for Arsenal. Willian was poor, so was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang if honesty prevails.

Thomas Partey showed spots of class but he was withdrawn at half time with a thigh problem.

Having escaped the first period only one goal down, Arsenal might’ve been expected to find more urgency for the second. Emi Martinez, a cup winner in August with Arsenal, however, may be worried about how little he had to do now in a Villa goalkeeper shirt, if that is he has any affection left for the club which allowed him to walk away in search of a regular game.

Bernd Leno looks a shaking skeleton in contrast.

He was beaten twice more before the end, both times by Watkins. Simple stuff of looping crosses around the Arsenal box worked for 2-0. Watkins always seemed keenest to get to the ball first; the root cause of Arsenal’s sickness.

His desire to run through the rain and beat the energy sapping sodden turf earned him a second goal; dashing in front of the shot Holding and piercing the ball through Leno’s legs.

There was simply nothing in return.

Dani Ceballos half-heartedly curled a couple of shots wide but the other two players summoned from the bench, Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah provided few scares for Martinez, particularly the latter. Aubameyang meanwhile can surely forget about a chase for the golden boot while living in exile on the left wing.

Arsenal and Arteta – we must assume they are one – are making big calls. Was Leno really the one to keep in goal? Was it right to freeze Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi out? Was Willian a sensible buy? And is this ultra-cautious approach and formation really necessary for every match? Big questions. Arteta’s predecessor didn’t get so long to answer them.

ARSENAL: Leno, Bellerin, Saka, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Elneny, Partey (Ceballos HT), Willian (Pepe 65), Aubameyang, Lacazette (Nketiah 65)
SUBS NOT USED: Luiz, Maitland-Niles, Runarsson, Xhaka

ASTON VILLA: Martinez, Cash, Targett, Mings, Konsa, Luiz, McGinn, Trezeguet, Barkley, Grealish, Watkins
SUBS NOT USED: Davis, Elmohamady, Hourihane, Nakamba, Steer, Taylor

 

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