Monday, May 16, 2011

Arsenal 1 - Aston Villa 2

My younger son and I went to Arsenal's final home match of the season yesterday, only to witness them losing miserably to Aston Villa. It's hard to believe that 3 weeks ago they were still in with a chance of winning the league.  There were no tickets available for the Villa match at that stage.  Then we lost to Bolton, killed off any hope of leading the final standings and a number of ticket holders made their tickets available for sale on the Arsenal ticket exchange.

Yesterday, Arsenal looked more like exhausted relegation candidates than title contenders.  After 5 minutes Villa had had three attacks and Darren Bent had been left in acres of space on each occasion.  By 11 minutes Bent had had the freedom of the Arsenal box on 5 occasions only this time Kyle Walker decided to give him the ball which he duly despatched into the net. 0-1 Villa. 4 minutes later, roaming free for the 6th time Bent was given the ball again, this time by Ashley Young, who had figured out that Bent + space + time + clueless defence = goal.  15 minutes in, 0-2 to Villa.

Thereafter Villa retired into their own half and didn't see much of the ball except as it got passed around them, and occasionally directly to them, by a group of Arsenal players who were jogging around in slow motion, looking in most cases as if it was all too much like hard work and they didn't want to be there.  With the notable exceptions of Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere the rest of this erstwhile honours chasing squad were woeful, particularly in the first half.  Early on Villa had been playing a pressing game high up the pitch - really dangerous against pacy attackers like Walcott but they needn't have worried as the Arsenal speed merchant had left his accelerator at home. This is a moot point anyway since no one even attempted to give him a ball over the top to run onto.

After the break some Arsenal players upped their pace from a deliriously slow walk to a hesitant jog though mostly they seemed to be standing around hoping the ball would be passed to someone else, almost all completely devoid of energy.

In fairness whatever the manager said at half time Song partly awoke from his slumbers and Gibbs, who had been exposed defensively, along with the rest of the back four, in the first half, injected a modicum of entropy and heat into his performance going forward.  Ironically Song did more attacking once he had been moved to centre half (at half time Chamakh had come on for Squillaci, with Song moving to the back and Van Persie into the middle).  This was partly because Villa had given up attempting to get the ball or to get into the Arsenal half of the field though Young and Downing made two or three forays forward, getting a couple of shots in on Szczesny.

Darren Bent was looking an increasingly frustrated lone figure up front, as even on the few occasions his team did venture forward they didn't give him the ball in spite of the continuing lack of attention he was receiving in the vast open wilderness he continued to occupy on the Emirates pitch. Clearly they'd forgotten the Bent + space + clueless defence = goal formula. Honestly if Arsenal had a natural goal scorer like Bent in the team along with a fit Van Persie for a full season (which, remember, has never happened), scoring at the rate of 20 goals every 21 games as he had done, we could almost get away with the other structural weaknesses in the side. (And I say that as someone who has never been a big Van Persie fan)

Part way through the second half the stadium announcer declared the attendance for the day to be 60k+ and that the team would be doing 'a lap of appreciation' at the end. This was met with boos and a sarcastic chant from the crowd, "You're havin' a laugh, 6%, you're havin' a laugh, 6%" presumably in "appreciation" of the board's decision to hike the ticket prices by 6.5% for next year.

Diehard supporters will point to the two disallowed Arsenal goals, the stonewall penalty the ref inexplicably missed in the first half (Ramsey through on goal, poleaxed by Dunne on the edge of the six yard box), the inescapable red card that would have accompanied that penalty. And, you know, they're right.  On another day those things would have gone Arsenal's way, we could have comfortably taken the points with a three or four goal margin and we could have papered over the cracks of a tired, washed out performance. The only energy most players showed was in threatening to pick fights and complaining to the ref about Villa's time wasting tactics, as Villa laughed behind their sleeves at the extra time the Arsenal guys were wasting, squaring up to them and arguing with the ref!

People began leaving the ground about 10 minutes from the end, so they missed Van Persie's consolation goal 90 seconds from the end of normal time.  Most of those remaining left on the final whistle, declining to hang around for the lap of appreciation.  It's been a poor end to a promising season and sad to see some of the remaining fans booing the squad as they came round the pitch, largely unenthusiastically. In this regard Van Persie should be picked out again - he brought his two kids with him and got them to wave to the crowd too.

Players and managers are real people too though with their huge salaries and lives in bubbles they don't see the world through the same lens as the rest of us and we sometimes forget that. They're disappointed to have come so close but missed out on multiple medals in the past couple of months and that disappointment shows in their game and demeanour. Arsene Wenger also looked tired and depressed traipsing round the pitch with the rest of them.  Hopefully they can close the season on a positive note next week and, whatever the summer brings in terms of changes, get a decent restful break, enabling them to approach the new season with some renewed energy, passion, vigour and confidence.

To the disappointed and even angry supporters, fuming at the lack of another season without silverware it's worth remembering that, next to Man U., Arsenal have been the most consistent side in the Premier League for 15 years.  That kind of longevity in football deserves respect and there are 90 other clubs and sets of supporters in the top four divisions of english football and many more from around the world who would love to be in the Gunners' situation. So whilst decrying the lack of success and the insipid frustrating performances like that against Aston Villa, we should pause too and appreciate what we've got.  So thanks to Arsene Wenger and the players and backroom staff at Arsenal for another season of ups and downs. Have a good break and good luck with preparations for next year.

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