Arsenal 1-3 Aston Villa
Following Ivan Gazidis’ now infamous statement at the end of last season, in which he proclaimed an escalation in Arsenal’s financial strength, the 2013/14 season was seen as the point at which the Gunners would once again begin to challenge for the biggest trophies in football. Yet with no money spent so far, the first match of the new campaign not only ended in disappointing defeat yesterday, but also with the home crowd taking out their frustrations on the Arsenal dugout. As soon as Aston Villa scored their third goal of the afternoon, to secure all three points, the Emirates crowd turned on Arsene Wenger, imploring the Frenchman to spend the money he has at his disposal, with some even calling for the manager’s head.
Strangely enough these were the same supporters who had been cheering their side on as early as the fifth minute, having seen their team take the lead through an excellently well worked goal. Jack Wilshere picked up possession deep inside his own half and strode forward, before laying the ball off to Rosicky, who released Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left wing. The young Englishman surged into the box, squaring the ball across goal for Giroud to fire home, following excellent movement from the Frenchman. It was a goal reminiscent of Arsenal of old, as quick movement and passing had opened up the Villa defence. Unfortunately this was as good as it got for the home side.
Having taken such an early lead, the Gunners were in control, with the visitors intent on sitting deep and playing long balls up to Christian Benteke. Although the home side did at times display neat interplay in midfield, Arsenal weren’t able to create significant chances and the visitors hadn’t really offered anything in return, until referee Anthony Taylor brought Paul Lambert’s team right back into the game with a series of ludicrous decisions. Arsenal supporters are accustomed to seeing poor refereeing displays at the Emirates, but Taylor set the bar at an all time low yesterday. Time and time again the referee awarded free kicks to the opposition for seemingly innocuous challenges, leading to great frustration amongst the players and fans.
In the 22nd minute, Taylor made the first of three unfathomable decisions which changed the game. Gabriel Agbonlahor was allowed the freedom of the Emirates as he raced through on goal, from the halfway line, unchallenged. As he entered the penalty area, Szczesny came off his line to challenge the Englishman but Agbonlahor got there first, prodding the ball away and the Polish goalkeeper inevitably collided with him. It was a clear penalty; however with the ball rolling into the path of Andi Weimann, Taylor allowed play to go on. Yet when the Austrian saw his shot hit the side netting, Taylor awarded the penalty. Surely, as Villa still had a shot on goal, they had made use of the advantage awarded to them by the referee. The fact Weimann did not score should have no bearing on whether the official then pulls play back.
With the Emirates crowd seething, Benteke stepped up to take the spot kick, which Szczesny managed to save. Unfortunately, the ball looped up perfectly for the Belgian powerhouse to make amends and nod home to restore parity.
In the 62nd minute Taylor compounded his earlier error, by awarding Villa another penalty. This time Cazorla, who was clearly off the pace, lost possession following poor control and Agbonlahor subsequently charged into the box. Laurent Koscielny produced an excellent last ditch tackle to clear the ball, the linesman, who had a clear view of the incident flagged for a corner, but the referee overruled his assistant to award the away side a penalty. Benteke this time sent Szczesny the wrong way to give Villa the lead.
Five minutes later and Arsenal were reduced to ten men, as Koscielny, who had been booked for conceding the penalty, was cautioned for a second time following a non-foul on Weimann.
Even with only ten men, Arsenal were the only side pushing forward and should have equalised following excellent play by Rosicky. The Czech international skipping past two challenges, exchanging passes with Giroud, before seeing his shot blocked by Guzan and the American goalkeeper was at it again minutes later, tipping Cazorla’s shot onto the crossbar. Arsenal were made to pay for missing these guilt edged chances, as with four minutes left, Luna was sent through from the half way line and the Spaniard buried his shot past Szczesny to seal all three points.
Following a summer of inexplicable inactivity, the fans inside the Emirates were rightly frustrated, but the way in which they turned on the manager did not help the team at all. Highbury was a fortress because the fans stood as one with the team. At the Emirates however, there has recently been a distinct sense that the atmosphere can turn sour at the drop of a hat. Away teams are very much aware of this and play on it. With the score 1-1, booing the team off at halftime yesterday was unnecessary. Arsenal certainly weren’t at their best but they weren’t terrible either. In fact the midfield trio of Ramsey, Wilshere and Rosicky displayed moments of great interplay and had the referee not intervened in the way he did, Arsenal may well have secured the win. Each game must be viewed in its own context. Had Villa completely dominated the match and outplayed the Gunners then the catcalls would have been justified, but this was simply a case of everything going against the home side. The injury to Gibbs forced a reshuffle in defence with Sagna switching to left back and Arsenal never regained their composure at the back, with the sending off compounding matters further. Of course Wenger is not completely blameless. The fact he has still not addressed the weaknesses in defence and the lack of an out and out defensive midfielder is beyond belief. Waiting for the last day of the transfer window to secure the services of a truly world class player is understandable, but once again performing a 2011 style last minute mad trolley dash to beef up a squad desperately short of numbers is ludicrous.