The fan consensus about Arsenal is pretty damning this morning.
We got outplayed, outfought and out-thought on our own ground by a very decent Aston Villa side.
Losing is always disappointing, but it is much harder when you go down without a fight. Last night we collapsed with barely a whimper. In fact, we put the ‘wimp’ in whimper.
What was Mikel Arteta’s response afterwards?
Well, it was actually pretty classy. He did not throw any individual players under the bus (as Mourinho would probably have done in similar circumstances). He put the blame squarely on his own shoulders:
“We performed below our standards, our ability and I didn’t see the spirit for the first time that I have seen every day in training and every day when we compete.
“This is totally my fault, it is why I am here, I am responsible for that, to make sure the team performs and competes at the highest level every three days. Today I haven’t done that, so obviously it is my fault.
“At the end of the day, if you are late in ever decision you make, if you don’t win enough duels, if every second ball isn’t for us, you don’t show the quality with the ball, you cannot defend your box, and when you get chances you don’t even hit the target, it is a really complicated way to win football matches.”
The match itself started badly when Villa had the ball in the back of our net in the first minute. VAR correctly ruled it offside (a Villa player was interfering with Leno’s line of sight) but it was a warning as to the visitors’ intent. Unfortunately we did not use it as a wake-up call.
The same starting 11 that were dominant across the pitch against Manchester United struggled to win any 50-50s, seemed low on energy and individually full of errors. Even in that Old Trafford win we were pretty toothless up front despite our superiority. Against Villa our toothlessness sank to a whole new level of gummy impotence.
The front three of Auba-Laca-Willian were far too far apart from each other for most of the game so moves broke down almost as soon as the ball reached them. Willian in particular had a truly awful game that must have had Chelsea fans rolling about laughing.
Nothing progressive came from midfield, although Partey had one or two dangerous-looking surges. Unfortunately an injury prevented him from returning after the half time break. Ceballos took his place but also struggled to make a big impact on the game.
One of the ironies was seeing our FA Cup hero goalie Emi Martinez return to the club where he had served over a decade in the shadows before his sudden rise to glory and walking off the pitch with three points and having barely been troubled. Villa’s second goal came from Big Emi catching a contested cross that Leno would probably have punched, then releasing the Villa attack with an outstanding Lehmann-like throw out.
I know there is no point raking over the goalkeeper decision now, but I am by no means convinced we kept the right stopper.
Overall, we looked weak in every department while the Midlanders looked strong, fast, decisive and dangerous.
I wrote a column a few weeks ago suggesting they could be a surprise Top Four package this season and I saw nothing yesterday to dissuade me from that. In Grealish they have the best English player of his generation (inexplicably frozen out of Gareth Southgate’s first team plans); Grealish’s partnership with Ross Barkley is turning into something potent (Ian Wright said the team he would most like to play for this season if he were still young is Villa because of Grealish-Barkley); and in Ollie Watkins they have a confident and in-form striker (who happens to be an Arsenal fan).
For all the pain of our performance, I actually enjoyed watching the way Villa played last night. In Arsene Wenger’s famous metaphor they played with the handbrake fully off. They deserve congratulations. Towards the end I found myself thinking “I wish we could play like that.” As for us? It’s not so much that our handbrake was on, it’s that we didn’t have a handbrake. Or an engine. Or any wheels. We played like a clapped out Ford Escort stripped bare and propped up on bricks after being left overnight in Scouseland.
But that’s enough doom and gloom.
For all the disappointment we have to remember that it was one game. Undoubtedly there is a lot for Mikel Arteta to think about it, but our young manager in whom we have such high hopes has not become useless overnight.
In his post match interview he added that you learn more from defeats than from victories and already in his brief tenure at the helm of HMS Arsenal he has earned the right to be given time to do that learning and to put things right.
I, for one, am a long way from giving up on him.
A lacklustre performance happens to all teams at times and I’m sure Arteta can get the players fired up again. A bigger issue is that we are creating so few chances and the answer to solving that problem probably lies less with personnel (although that is part of it) and more with how we set up.
Arteta came in to a club that gave away sloppy goals for fun and saw his first job as making us tighter and better organised at the back. Notwithstanding yesterday, he has mostly achieved that.
But the process of doing so seems to have infected him with a sense of undue caution. It’s time now for less caution and more risk. He who dares doesn’t always win, but he feels a lot better about himself for having tried.
Arteta has the international break to ponder things. He has been drilling his team in a certain style of play but that style now needs to be modified and I hope he is broad shouldered enough to admit it.
Release the handbrake Mikel.
Leno – 4
Not sure he could have done much about any of the goals, but you don’t get points for letting three in.
Bellerin – 5
Average from Hector and no more.
Holding – 5
For a change individual defensive errors did not undo us, more an overall paucity of effort and concentration. Rob was average.
Gabriel – 6
Our best performer on the night, but no-one gets MoTM after that showing.
Tierney – 5
Unusually tentative at times and made one hilarious slip that has already become a meme.
Partey – 5
Looked promising at times but went off injured at HT.
Elneny – 5
Ran around a lot.
Saka – 5
Can’t fault his effort, but nothing came off.
Willian – 2
A truly awful performance. Villa’s first goal came from Willian passing to a Villa player while not under any pressure. He gave away possession time after time and had zero impact as an attacking force. Has he been sent by Chelsea as a sleeper agent to help destroy us from within?
Lacazette – 3
He has a difficult role in this set-up, but he missed our best chance of the game.
Aubameyang – 4
Unable to influence the game from his exile out in the wild west.
Ceballos – 5
I felt Dani tried, but could not make any impression given the overall lacklustre nature of our team performance. He played a couple of nice through balls that came to nothing.
Pepe – 5
Was an improvement on Willian, but my Gran would have been an improvement on Willian and she’s dead.
Nketiah – 4
Didn’t get much of a look in.