Monday, May 20, 2024

Arsenal 0-2 Aston Villa: Title hopes dented after poor second half

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It was a tale of two halves as Arsenal’s title challenge suffered a real blow after a 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa. In the first, despite a bit of threat from Unai Emery’s side, we played well and had we been better and more efficient in the final third, we could have out of sight by half-time. In the second, our level dropped dramatically, we didn’t respond, and paid the price with the concession of two late goals.

Mikel Arteta’s team selection saw Gabriel Jesus start up front with Kai Havertz dropping back into midfield. We also had Leandro Trossard on the left and Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back. Our movement was sharp, Bukayo Saka and Kai Havertz finding space in the channels and in behind. The German had a shot saved after a good Trossard pass, and Saka produced an excellent cross for Jesus who headed wide when he really should be hitting the target from that back post position.

Martin Odegaard was brilliant, pulling the strings in front of the Villa defence, and his pass to Saka deserved better than a poor touch and a wild shot wide of the near post. There was some joy with a ball to Havertz over the top, but while his running was good, he lacked decisiveness once he got into those positions.

We were on top, which is what made the moment when Zinchenko put the ball out so frustrating. Villa had Zaniolo down, pretending to be hurt after colliding with his own man. In that situation, I want ruthlessness, a mindset which says ‘Let’s take advantage of this’, but for some reason the left-back booted the ball out of play. Maybe nothing would have come of it, but at this level and with so much at stake, you don’t let any opposition off the hook like that. We had the ball high in their half, putting them under pressure, they gave it back to David Raya. Just maddening. I’m all for sportsmanship if someone is really, badly hurt, but this was not that.

There was more Odegaard brilliance, finding a pass to Havertz whose cross was headed over by Saka, before a mistake at the back from Gabriel – firing a pass into the back of Zinchenko – saw Ollie Watkins hit the post, the ball rebounding across the line and just beyond the far post. Then came what I think is a pivotal moment, after an Odegaard shot was blocked, the ball fell for Jesus who squared for Trossard. He had all the goal to aim at, but put it straight at Emi Martinez. For me this is much more a bad miss than a great save, and it’s hard not to wonder how things might have gone had we taken a lead into the break.

Nevertheless, I was relatively confident. If we could maintain that level, surely we’d find a way through. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. There’s no doubt Villa were better in the second period, and the best team after the break, without really creating too much. Zinchenko gave them a helping hand with daft carelessness on the edge of our own box after we’d defended a corner (did he try a nutmeg there?!), Youri Tielemans’ shot hit both bar and post with Raya beaten all ends up.

By that point Villa had replaced Moussa Diaby with Leon Bailey, and I think my main criticism of this second half is how slow Mikel Arteta was to react and to try and change the momentum. Takehiro Tomiyasu came on for Ben White, who had been booked, so that was more or less like for like, while Gabriel Martinelli replaced Trossard. That did little to impact the way the game was being played, or our ability to get a foothold in midfield which, when you consider the players Villa were missing, isn’t a good reflection on how Arteta managed this game.

It was the 80th minute when he sent on Jorginho for Odegaard (Arteta said he was ‘feeling something’ – my guess is: ‘bereft that we don’t have the forward players to capitalise on his first half brilliance’), and Smith Rowe for Jesus. Neither player helped, and Villa’s pressure continued with a number of corners, while we struggled to create anything. Another corner brought their first goal, we got it clear, Villa played it back into the inside left channel, and a speculative ball across our box found Bailey unmarked to slot home for 1-0.

A ball like that should never get that far, Raya is not really doing much at his front post, and at the back, Declan Rice is asleep, unaware of where Bailey is. He has been superb for us this season, but yesterday was not one of his best days. As for the second, Jorginho – brought on to give us some security in possession – gave it away high up the pitch, they sent Watkins clear with one pass, and despite the efforts of Smith Rowe, it was 2-0. I think there’s a slight touch of good fortune about the finish, in that it hits Smith Rowe and deflects up and over Raya, but when you let a player like Watkins have that kind of space, there’s really only ever going to be one outcome when he’s in the kind of form he’s shown this season.

Late goals against are always the most painful, but in this title race, and having seen Liverpool lose to Crystal Palace earlier in the day, these felt like real daggers to the heart. It says something about what we all understand of the Premier League these days that a single defeat to leave us just a couple of points behind Man City with 6 games still to play can feel like the end of the days, but that’s the reality we’ve become accustomed to. There is little to no margin for error, it felt like our blip at Christmas might be recoverable, but when you make one at this point it’s basically fatal.

Of course, anything can happen. It is possible that City might drop points somewhere, and that’s the mindset the manager and the players have to have, but ask any fan of Arsenal, Liverpool, or probably any other team today, and they’ll tell you there’s an inevitability about what happens next. We’ve seen this movie before. 115 times, perhaps, but it is what it is.

It also explains why after a brilliant 2024, in which we’ve played 12, won 10, drawn 1, and lost just 1, we’re all feeling so down today. In the context of that run, of what this team has produced over the last three months, it’s one bad game … maybe even just one bad half … and yet it’s real gut punch which now opens the door for Man City to go and do what they always do. The reality is that to beat them to the title, you have to basically be perfect, and what that second half told us yesterday is that we still have work to do to try and achieve that. And that’s leaving aside the ridiculousness of having do that in the first place, because it’s not normal, as much as we might be accustomed to it.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta urged his team to react in the right way, starting with Bayern on Wednesday:

Now is the moment to stand up as a leader, as a character to make yourself count because when you win and win and win and win for four months, it’s very simple to do it. The moment is now.

It is really the only message he can send, because there is still a lot to play for. There’s a big trophy available in Europe, and if something unexpected happens in the Premier League, we have to be ready for that too. There is no other way to approach things, but after a difficult day yesterday, it will be a challenge for Arteta to lift his team, tired legs and all, for what lies ahead. Let’s hope he can do it, because if yesterday had us down for a count of 8, it’s not a knock-out blow … yet, anyway.

Ok, let’s leave it there for now. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re an Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around noon. Until then.

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