Thursday, February 29, 2024

Aston Villa 1-0 Arsenal: If you don’t take chances, you drop points

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An early goal consigned Arsenal to our second defeat of the season, away at Aston Villa, on a night when we didn’t do enough in front of goal to take anything from the game.

Given their recent form, a bright start from the home side wasn’t a big surprise, but defensively we were found wanting as they opened the scoring. I think Gabriel should do more to stop the cross, Ben White probably should have been a bit tighter to his man, but credit where it’s due: the turn and finish from John McGinn are remarkably quick for a man with an arse the size of an Antarctic ice-shelf.

Adding to the frustration of going behind was the fact just 60 seconds beforehand we had an excellent chance ourselves. Gabriel Martinelli’s cross found Bukayo Saka with space behind his full-back, and while I don’t think it’s a tap-in by any means, you expect better from the finish from a player of his quality.

Arsenal were sloppy in the opening 20 minutes. Too many players capable of making good passes overhit them, or just sent them in the wrong direction, but we grew into the game. Villa were all over Man City in midweek, this was nowhere near that. Things started to happen. Martin Odegaard shot not far wide. Declan Rice had the chance for a first-time shot but tried a pass which didn’t come off. Martinelli was sent in behind and got the ball over Emi Martinez but a defender got it clear. Odegaard tried again, this time Martinez made an excellent save. Jesus then forced the former Arsenal man into a decent stop.

It wasn’t quite relentless attack, but there was enough there to make you think a team which scores the way we do would find a way through. Villa’s offside trap demanded a bit more than just trying to find Martinelli down the left. I think it’s something they had a discussion about at half-time, because you could see Havertz looking to make the run time and again, but too often the ball didn’t come because Zinchenko was doing that thing where he stands on the ball to suck the opposition towards him before passing. It needed to be quicker.

When it happened though, it was dangerous. Just minutes after Villa almost scored an own goal off Martinez (damn the gods for denying us that!), Havertz got behind in that inside-left channel and played a good ball across the box. Odegaard should score, instead he skewed his shot wide and for me that was a pivotal moment. Had we equalised there, I’m convinced we’d have gone on to win it, it was a bad miss from a player capable of tucking that away with relative ease. We’ve seen it before.

Between that, and the fact Saka had a goal ruled out for offside, I think that took some of the fizz out of our performance. Villa were able to make subs to add fresh legs, and that helped them. We still had moments though. Saka’s excellent pass to Jesus in the box ought to have led to more, but his touch was too heavy, and later the Brazilian lacked the legs to get in behind or play a pass to Saka after he was sent on his way. The introduction of Leandro Trossard for Martinelli made no difference, and our front four/five were not at their best which is the key reason we came away with nothing.

Late on, we had the ball in the net but that was disallowed for handball by Havertz. One of those where by the letter of the law it’s an offence, but I can tell you this: the referee could not possibly have seen that in real-time, and just guessed. He got away with it, but that’s not how decisions should be made. We also know the rule is absurd, almost everyone in football believes that to be the case, but it is the rule. Whether it conclusively hit his hand is another question, especially as that word was used a lot in our game at Newcastle.

By that time Villa should have been down to 10 men after Diego Carlos elbowed Eddie Nketiah in the head. I don’t know if it would have made any real difference, but the last 10 minutes might have more challenging for Villa, and I’m quite tired of our players being smashed in the head without the requisite punishment being handed out by the officials. The penalty incident earlier in the second half was frustrating too, not least because we saw one given earlier in the day for more or less the same thing, and the lack of consistency would drive you mad. On TV they said the threshold for contact wasn’t enough, but applying my own rule to this, if one of our defenders had kicked a Villa player in the back of the leg, and hooked it a bit too, I don’t think I could complain too much if a penalty had been awarded.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

I’m very disappointed with the result, especially with the way we played, I think we deserved much more than what we had, I thought we were the better team, I haven’t seen a team do what we did to Villa today since we were here in February. It wasn’t enough to win it because we lacked the accuracy in the opponent’s box to put the ball in the back of the net with the amount of situations that we generated.

I thought the answer to the question about Arsenal perhaps being fatigued was interesting, he said:

A team that is fatigued doesn’t play against Aston Villa in the way we have played, with the energy, commitment and quality that we have done. I don’t think that’s the case.

Which is fair enough really, but maybe a team which is a bit heavy-legged struggles in front of goal the way we did last night. I can’t say for sure, but it might explain a bit of why we collectively didn’t make the most of the positions we got ourselves into and the chances we had.

As you might expect, he had nothing of substance to say about the officiating, just repeating ‘clear and obvious’ when asked about it. So, job done for the PGMOL and the FA as they browbeat managers into insipid silence rather than allowing them to say what they really think. As fans, we miss out because it would obviously be far more interesting if Arteta – and ALL other managers by the way – felt like they could speak freely. With the support of sections of the media who gate-keep and shut down the discussion over refereeing standards, perhaps in actual cahoots with the PGMOL in my opinion, this is where we are.

Let’s not forget that we are five weeks down the line after his post-Newcastle comments and they still haven’t come to a decision regarding a fine or a ban or whatever punishment they decide. You might wonder why. Perhaps another touchline ban for a high profile fixture is what they have been planning all along, but I guess we’ll see.

As I said earlier, our lack of a point, or points, from this game is down to us, and our profligacy in front of goal. However, the decisions with regard to the penalty, the disallowed goal, and the red card – which is by far the most egregious to me, not to mention the manager being suspended from the touchline in the first place, feel like a bit of PGMOL payback for Arteta’s comments. I can’t say for sure that is the case, just that that’s what it feels like to me. When you have to play very good teams every week, it makes your life even more difficult when you’re being officiated differently.

It’s just another aspect of the challenge we face this season. What we can control is what we do with the ball (as long as our players aren’t being smashed in the head without censure of course), and I’m sure that will be Arteta’s focus. We’re going to have to be perfect, we won’t get the 50/50 decisions, so being efficient and being clinical becomes ever more important. We weren’t last night, and that’s what we can we can do better.

Mark this one down to an off-night, because you can’t always find the late goal, and make plans for Brighton. PSV during the week should be a game to rotate heavily, and rest some legs. We responded brilliantly after losing to Newcastle, time to do the same again this time.

Till tomorrow.

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