Of all the upsetting results that we've seen this season, I don't think I've been as angry at the end of any as I was at the end of this one. Which seems odd, seeing as how I never expected Villa to earn even a point from this one. That first half though; that was as bad as I have ever seen Aston Villa. Villa were sloppy, wasteful and scared. I could deal with scared had it been the kids that looked that way, but it wasn't. The average age of the starting back line (not including Brad Friedel) was 29.5; that's not young by any standard, but Arsenal made them look like a U-21 side. I wish to take nothing away from Arsenal; they were brilliant. and the best defensive corps in the world would have had trouble with them were they to play as they did today. But Villa's back four showed time and again that the talent and skill are top notch but the mental aspect of the game is often lacking.
That's probably not really fair to Richard Dunne and James Collins; Villa's two big center halves have certainly looked better, but the lion's share of the blame has to be laid on Luke Young and Stephen Warnock. Stephen Warnock was consistently frustrated by Tomas Rosicky and made several fairly desperate challenges. How Warnock was able to escape without a booking is beyond me, and if there is one consistent theme this season that is more upsetting than any other it would have to be Warnock's decline. One of the better defensive left backs in the Premier League last season he often looks overmatched and his propensity for committing fouls in dangerous areas and going into the book early has made him a serious liability. Worse yet, there are no real desirable in-house replacements for Warnock and the relative scarcity of quality players at his position makes it a difficult and expensive one to fill externally. He quite simply has to get back to being the player he was last season and if that means he figures less prominently in the attack then so be it.
Things were even worse where Luke Young was concerned. He was quite frankly abused by Andrei Arshavin and the Russian winger's 39th minute goal was probably the least surprising thing we saw all day. Only Luke Young knows why he felt the need to leave his mark and challenge his own teammate for Lukasz Fabianski's goal kick, but the ensuing collision resulted in Arshavin being left alone in acres of space. Richard Dunne was the only man in any position to cover the ensuing breakaway and his hesitation to commit in any one of the three directions from which a threat was posed gave Arshavin all the time he needed to slot the ball into the far corner from the edge of the box. This has been a recurring theme all season and it has never been more evident than it was yesterday; the full backs lose their mark time and again, forcing the center backs to move out wide and opening up the center. A lot of blame was placed on Collins and Dunne for the field day that Marouane Chamakh had in this game, but in almost every single instance he was given his opening because one of the central defenders were forced to go out wide. Should Dunne and Collins have stayed at home more often and taken their chances in leaving the wingers unmarked? Possibly. But were Villa's full backs playing with the least bit of competence it wouldn't be a decision they were forced to make.
The attack inspired no more confidence than the defense in the first half. Hindsight is of course 20/20 but it became clear fairly early on that Gerard Houllier's decision to start Robert Pires and John Carew together up top was not an especially good one. Villa score the vast, vast majority of their goals during the run of play on the counter and when your two central attacking players move at about half the speed of your wingers that's a pretty massive problem. Villa were able to give other teams problems with Emile Heskey up top because he was able to drop into a deeper position and let the speedier Ashley Young take the lead. With Pires and Carew in the middle any counters down the wing (and there weren't very many of them in that first half) ended up with either Young or Downing sprinting into the final third and waiting or sending hopeful crosses to the other wing that were then cleared harmlessly. Villa's only real scoring opportunity in the first 45 came on such a cross, but maddeningly it was one of the only times we saw Carew in any real position of danger all day but instead of managing to get a nod on the ball he left Ashley Young to attempt an incredibly difficult shot that he was lucky to put as close to the target as he did. What was probably the most upsetting thing about Carew's performance is that it was the best the big man has looked since the opening game; he was active in the build-up when Villa did actually manage to get the ball out of their own end, he had some quality hold-up play and once things picked up a bit in the second half he made a couple of nice passes in the attacking third. But he was once again quite poor on the balance of things, leaving up to continue asking the question of whether his performance is up to injury, rust or severe decline.
Robert Pires looks as though he can bring some value in areas aside from his ability to mentor the younger players, but he also looks to be a little ways away from doing so consistently. His being subbed off at the half was an obvious decision as the 37 year old looked positively gassed by the time the whistle was blown. There's some potential there as a playmaking central mid once he's at maximum fitness, but he's clearly not there yet and in any case he must be paired with a striker that's capable of getting behind defenses and keeping pace with the wingers. Villa clearly need to improve their ability to threaten goal through the middle when in possession, but not at the expense of their ability to flat out-run the opposition. There's no sense in robbing Peter to pay Paul. Nathan Delfouneso does not have the speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor or Ashley Young, but Villa were more dangerous by several orders of magnitude the second he entered the game because he has enough speed to at least pose a threat on the counter.
Arsenal's second came from a corner, the initial threat turned away but falling to a completely unmarked Samir Nasri at the edge of the box. the first goal was bad enough, but this one made me absolutely sick to my stomach. Arsenal are not known for posing much of a threat from set-pieces. They don't have big aerial threats up front or towering central defenders that can pose the kind of threat in the air of which Collins or Dunne are capable. The one thing-the one, single, solitary thing-that you cannot do is allow them to have free shots from distance after the initial clearance. There are enough players capable of nailing long shots in their side that it is worth committing fewer resources to the middle to make sure none of them are allowed a crack. And Villa allowed Nasri so much space on the clearance that had he so chosen he likely would have had plenty of time to gather, settle himself and then take the shot rather than striking on the volley. He didn't go that route though and his wickedly struck ball took a deflection off of Luke Young into the net. The whistle blew shortly thereafter and Villa headed to the locker room having been played off the pitch. It was 2-0 but so thorough was Arsenal's domination that it very well could have been 4-0, maybe even more. It was one of the poorer performances you could ever expect to see from a team with near-term aspirations for the Champions League at their own park and the home side went into the break to a well-deserved chorus of boos from the Villa faithful.
Things did improve dramatically after the break, with the impact of Delfouneso's presence in the middle of the attack and Downing and Young's switching wings being immediately felt. Villa's first was odd in that it had a feeling of inevitability to it and at the same time came absolutely out of nowhere. a stray ball fell to Ciaran Clark just outside the area and the young center-back-cum-midfielder belted the ball past Fabianski and into the net. On the replay two things became clear; 1) John Carew was well offside and 2) John Carew was quite clearly blocking Fabianski's view of the play. Carew did not touch the ball but a pretty strong case could be made (okay, an iron-clad case could be made) that he had a major impact on the play. As I understand the rule in a situation such as this the decision whether or not to call the goal off is completely left to the referee's discretion; if he believes that Fabianski could have made the save had Carew not been standing in his line of site then the offside should be given. If he believes that the ball was going in either way then it should be allowed to stand. I'm not entirely convinced that there is any way that ball doesn't find the net had Fabianski had a clearer view of Clark but at the same time I think it's fair to say that Villa were very, very lucky to see the goal stand. If you are the type of person that needs fairness in order to derive happiness from such events, consider it retribution for Jack Wilshire's obvious handball going uncalled just prior to Arsenal's first goal.
For the first time that day Villa's supporters came alive and based on Arsenal's difficulty closing out games and the spark with which Villa were playing things felt positive for the first time since the opening whistle. So of course just four minutes after Clark's goal Marouane Chamakh snatched one back well against the run of play, once again taking advantage of the space in the middle that was vacated by Richard Dunne having to cover what should have been Stephen Warnock's mark. At that point I fully expected Villa to fold but much to my surprise and pleasure they did not. Arsenal woke up and began to put together some dangerous play but Villa were right there with them and though it was 3-1 it felt a whole lot closer. Things got very interesting in the 71st minute when Ciaran Clark got a head to the ball from Richard Dunne's nod on of a corner and Villa were well and truly right back in things. Arsenal most likely could have made themselves more comfortable should they have shown a bit of restraint in the attack, but when they would have been more well served to camp in possession and run out the clock they couldn't keep themselves from trying to put the game out of reach and Villa were equal to the task. The last twenty minutes were breathless, the back line keeping the wolves at bay and dangerous counter after dangerous counter coming tantalizingly close. Stephen Ireland was brought on for John Carew in the 67th minute and while he didn't look fantastic he didn't look to be a liability either, which is positive progress. There were a few flashes of brilliance and if it really is just an issue of confidence for Ireland then his performance in this one should be reason for optimism.
As unlikely as it would have seemed at the half, for the final twenty minutes or so it really did feel like Villa would be able to at the very least bring things level and just maybe even snatch a fourth and take all three points. Arsenal were in shambles at the back and Villa continued to look more confident as things wore on. As it got down to the end though Arsenal finally go it through their heads that playing deep and looking to counter was their best hope of preserving victory and right at he death they were able to break through, with Jack Wilshire and Marouane Chamakh combining to catch Brad Friedel in a hopeless position and Wilshire nodding home to notch the one that put things fully out of reach for Villa. It was a fitting end to a breathless second half; Villa came so close to getting themselves back into the game but in the end Arsenal were just the better side by miles and their efforts to give away the points were unsuccessful. There were some things to like about the effort and spirit shown in the second half, but any enthusiasm gathered should be tempered. Arsenal played some pretty stupid football after an absolutely brilliant start and while Villa were able to take advantage of their mistakes had the Gunners shown less disinterest early in the second and more intelligence after things got close it wouldn't have been an issue. Villa have either put themselves out of games early or allowed the opposition to creep back into things late in nearly every single game this year. A fully realized performance has been sorely lacking from this team and while a certain amount of that is to be expected from such a young side it's getting to be a bit ridiculous. And as far as that youth thing is concerned? That wasn't even really so much in evidence yesterday. The back line was comprised entirely of veteran players. Young, Downing, Carew and Pires have all been professionals for quite some time. Yes, the central midfield employed was still quite young and inexperienced, but for the most part Bannan and Clark looked to be the least rattled of all.
Villa have an exciting young corps of players that are crying out for some leadership from their elders, and they're not getting it. Stewart Downing and Ashley Young should have been Villa's two best players on the pitch and for almost the entirety of the first half they were awful. Stephen Warnock and Luke Young were non-factors in both the defensive and attacking phases of the game. John Carew was once again a waste of space. As I said earlier in this one, I can deal with less than stellar performances from the kids. But when the kids come to play and the veterans give the game away it's incredibly frustrating. There is little doubt in my mind that Villa's best XI are capable of hanging with any team in the league. Yes, Villa have some severe injury problems. It's not that I'm especially disappointed that Villa were beaten by Arsenal. It's that the players we should be depending on to pick up the team when the younger players aren't at their best were complete non-factors until one of those young players forced them to start paying attention. That's not the way things should work, and it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.