Aston Villa gave it a right good go as Paul Lambert would say, but an 85th minute goal from Santi Cazorla --his second of the match-- handed Arsenal a narrow victory in a hard-fought and largely entertaining contest at the Emirates. Cazorla fired the Gunners ahead just six minutes in after a dominant beginning for the home side and it looked very much like it could be one of those days. Somewhat surprisingly Villa responded brilliantly, and they outplayed Arsenal for long stretches of the game with Andreas Weimann finally breaking through in the 68th minute with a tremendous strike off the counter.
Either side looked plenty capable of scoring in the immediate aftermath, but Villa spent the final ten minutes playing deep and hanging on for dear life. As has been the case so many times this season (and last, and the one before that, and the one before that, etc.) they weren't able to prevent the late goal. It was a heart-breaker, but it was also far from unpredictable and will lead once again to questions about Villa's late-game tactics.
Though this result coupled with Wigan's 3-0 stomping of Reading drops Villa back into the relegation zone, this is one of the few games remaining on the schedule that Villa could afford to lose. That being said, it's beyond frustrating that things played out in such a familiar way after Villa played so well against a significantly more talented Arsenal side. Dropping deep late on to preserve a positive result is all well and good when your defense is capable of pulling it off, but Villa's clearly isn't.
In 2013 alone, Villa have let seven points slip in the final ten minutes of games. Hang on for all seven of those points and Villa's comfortably mid-table; hang on for just three of them and they're level on points with Newcastle and out of the bottom three. And yet, game after game, it's the same approach once the clock hits 80:00. Whether it's an intentional tactical decision or panic on the part of the Villa players it's not at all a new problem and the onus is on Paul Lambert to change things. That he has been unwilling or unable to do so is worrisome, to say the very least.
It's also worth noting that Christian Benteke had what might have been his worst performance in a Villa shirt, yet remained on the pitch for all 90 minutes. While it's true that Benteke is one of the few players on this squad capable of providing individual moments of brilliance out of nothing, he does have occasional games like this one where he does almost nothing positive. In those situations, it's a bit baffling that he's not subbed off, especially in a situation such as today's where Lambert was quite clearly content to try to hold on for a point. Benteke is big and strong but he's not especially good at defending set pieces, and Weimann looked plenty dangerous and capable of leading the line on his own. This game really could have done with someone like Yacouba Sylla in the latter stages, and though it's always difficult to take a player like Benteke off in a game you feel you have a chance to win, it's tough to see leaving him on as the correct decision and once again, this isn't an isolated incident.
It's easy to second guess, and had Villa lost this game 3-0 it's likely that the criticism of Lambert would be less harsh. This was a good performance from Villa, and you could quite easily make the case that their effort deserved at least a point. But to get so close to what would have been a massive result and fall short thanks at least in part to things that have been significant issues for quite some time is legitimately deserving of criticism. When there's as big of a talent advantage as Arsenal's over Villa at play, a good performance isn't usually enough. You need luck, and you need to get the big decisions right. That didn't happen today and that's been the case pretty consistently. There's no one person to blame and the manager is always an easy scapegoat, and I'm certainly not calling for Lambert's head. But I'd be lying if I said that these trends weren't ominous.