Arsenal vs. Aston Villa: An embarrassing start

   One match was enough to show that Arsenal’s squad is too thin right now. Wenger pointed the finger at the referee and the news media for Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Aston Villa, but the truth is that the French manager can only blame himself for such a mess.

   Two years ago, the transfers of Fabregas and Nasri forced Wenger into a last-minute trolley dash. The mood at the club was so bad that half the dressing room wanted to leave. The manager seemed to learn from his mistakes by hiring Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla quite early last summer. But now we’re back to square one. Wenger has put himself in a corner again by relying too much on the current squad to get more time and make cheaper deals.

   Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sagna, Rosicky and Ramsey picked up injuries on Saturday while Koscielny was sent off and will be suspended for the next Premiership match. After Podolski replaced Sagna in stoppage time, there were just Frimpong, Gnabry, Sanogo and Fabianski left on the bench. That tells you how thin is Arsenal’s squad. 

   The club needs to buy players because the gap with the Blues, the Citizens and the Red Devils is increasing. Manchester City hired Negredo, Navas, Jovetic and Fernandinho while Chelsea signed Schurrle, De Bruyne and Van Ginkel. Today, Arsenal is clearly no contender for the title. Our squad is even weaker than Tottenham’s. The Spurs did not qualify for the Champions League but they gave themselves a chance to finish in the top 4 this season by recruiting Soldado, Paulinho, Capoue and Chadli.

   When Arsenal left Highbury, Wenger did a great job to help the club pay for the cost of the new Emirates stadium. But now that the net debt has been stabilized around 100 million pounds, the priorities have changed. Now Arsenal needs to rebuild its brand. The club’s brand value has declined because Arsenal has not won any trophy since 2005 and has not been a serious Premiership contender for years. Vertonghen and Holtby were Arsenal targets but ended up signing with Tottenham because the Spurs were perceived as more ambitious. 

   As one of my history professors used to say, when Rome was weak, it needed Fabius Maximus to survive. And when Rome was stronger, it needed Scipio Africanus to beat Hannibal. Fabius was the right man for guerrilla warfare but he could never have conquered Carthage. And Scipio was the right man for large-scale battles but he did not have the skills to lead a war of attrition in Italy.

   The Gunners no longer need Wenger the Accountant. Now they need Wenger the Conqueror, the one who bought Bergkamp, Henry, Overmars, Pires, Gilberto Silva, Ljunberg and Vieira. With new sponsorship deals kicking in within a couple of years, Arsenal must invest in its brand right now.

   Wenger said he’s looking for quality and not quantity. Basically, the manager wants players who would improve his team. Arsenal recently offered Liverpool 47 million euros to get Suarez. The bid was rejected but there were cheaper options. The club especially missed out on Higuain, who joined Napoli for 40 million euros, and on Gomez, who signed with Fiorentina for 20 million euros. Both Higuain and Gomez are more clinical finishers than Giroud.

   Arteta’s absence on Saturday also highlighted the need for a proven holding midfielder. Luiz Gustavo said he was interested in a move to Arsenal. But in the end, the Brazil international was signed by Wolfsburg for about 20 million euros. No disrespect for Arteta, but Gustavo at 26 is a better player than the 31-year-old Spaniard.

   Gomez, Higuain and Gustavo were the obvious missed opportunities. But if we look at Chelsea’s recruitment, there are a lot of question marks about Arsenal’s scouting network too. Perica (17), Cuevas (18), Wallace (19) and Lucas Piazon (19) are the kind of talented youngsters that Arsenal would have bought more than a decade ago. 

   The collapse of Arsenal’s brand value outweighs any debt reduction that could be achieved this season. If Wenger can’t see it, the board and the fans will loudly remind him with every defeat and draw. The loss to Aston Villa was just a wake-up call.

   The Gunners got off to a good start on Saturday, opening the scoring after five minutes. Pressured on the edge of the Arsenal area, Wilshere dribbled past a Villan to find Rosicky in midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain was released down the left flank by the Czech playmaker and cut the ball back for Giroud, who flicked home from four yards. Aston Villa pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers, but that strategy backfired as Wilshere and Rosicky have the skills to skip past opponents. That play showed the importance of the first pass. An average player would have given the ball back with a clearance. But Wilshere saw a tiny gap in midfield and made a great move to lose his marker and connect with Rosicky.

   Arsenal did not sit on its lead and kept playing with the same intensity in the following minutes. Wilshere combined on the left wing to make a cross for Giroud, who headed wide in the 20th. The Gunners looked in control of the game. But one moment of passivity was enough to turn around the match.

   Agbonlahor dropped back in the 21st and set off a dash from midfield. Ramsey did not bother to track him. Agbonlahor skipped past Wilshere, nutmegged Koscielny and capitalized on Gibbs’ passivity to be clean through on goal. Szczesny came off his line and tripped Agbonlahor. Weimann pounced on the loose ball but sent the ball into the side-netting. Although the referee initially played advantage, he changed his mind and awarded a penalty while giving Szczesny a yellow card. Szczesny dived to his right to parry Benteke’s low strike but the Belgian forward nodded in the rebound.

   Wilshere and Ramsey aren’t holding midfielders. They can win tackles but aren’t used to protecting the back four. Would Arteta have made a professional foul to break the play? Probably. The Villans had no qualms about stopping Wilshere and Ramsey whenever they felt a dangerous play was developing.

   Arsenal had two half-chances to recapture the lead before halftime. Walcott capitalized on a misunderstanding between Luna and Guzan to win the ball in the 34th, but his cutback for Giroud was intercepted. The French forward then chased a long ball from Wilshere in the 43rd, but he was let down by a poor first touch, allowing Guzan to collect the ball.

   Goalkeeping was a concern last season. Szczesny’s performance on Saturday raised serious questions. The Polish goalkeeper still had Koscielny and Sagna to protect him in the 36th, but he decided to come off his line for an awkward clearance. The ball fell to Westwood, whose lob attempt lacked power to beat Szczesny. Szczesny’s poor decision-making and his lack of authority and communication could weaken Arsenal’s defense this season.

   Arsenal lost the control of the match in the second half. Rosicky was our main attacking threat but failed to convert two clear-cut chances. He played a one-two with Giroud in the 52nd but missed the target with his curling shot from 17 yards. Another run and another one-two with Giroud in the 72nd but Guzan denied the Czech playmaker. Rosicky was then played in by Wilshere in the 78th and headed the ball toward Cazorla, whose bouncing volley hit the bar. Rosicky gives Arsenal a lot of penetration but he needs to improve his finishing in training.

   While the Villans had only one chance in the first half, they created as many chances as the Gunners in the second half. That’s a worry for Bould and Wenger, who thought they had fixed the club’s defensive problems. Arsenal had the second tightest defense last season. So conceding three goals to a team that was fighting relegation a few months ago is really embarrassing.

   In the 53rd, Mertesacker gave Delph too much space and the English midfielder fired a low drive from 25 yards that struck the far post. Then a lack of communication in the 61st led to a turnover by Cazorla, leaving Koscielny one-on-one against Agbonlahor. Koscielny made a sliding tackle and Taylor awarded Aston Villa a second penalty while handing a yellow card to Koscielny. The French defender had a touch on the ball but his trailing leg also brought Agbonlahor down. That was a 50-50 call in my eyes. Benteke wrongfooted Szczesny for a 2-1 lead.

   Taylor was criticized by Wenger after the match for his poor officiating. Indeed, the referee lacked consistency in his decisions, a clear sign that he had lost the plot. Taylor ignored minor fouls that slowed down Arsenal’s passing game. When Vlaar made a professional foul on Wilshere in the 30th, it was ludicrous zeal to give a yellow card to both players. A smarter referee would have given Wilshere a verbal warning. On the other hand, Arsenal can’t complain about the first penalty. Szczesny could have been sent off for killing a scoring chance.

   It was obvious in the second half that Aston Villa was trying to rough up Arsenal. That was a very common approach when Nasri and Fabregas were still at the club. Ramsey got tripped by Benteke in the 57th and tackled from behind by Westwood in the 66th. Both Villans earned yellow cards. But when Lowton made a professional foul on Wilshere to stop a counterattack in the 55th, Taylor gave a free kick but no yellow card. That’s where Taylor deserves some stick for his double standards. Vlaar was guilty of an obstruction on Rosicky in the 69th but did not pick a second yellow card. Koscielny had no such luck when he fouled Weimann in the 67th. Taylor did not have the same magnanimity he showed to Lowton and Vlaar and ejected the Frenchman.

   Taylor’s officiating was dodgy but Arsenal can’t blame him for the defeat. Aston Villa made it 3-1 with a counterattack from a corner in the 85th. Jenkinson failed to cut the passing channel and Weimann fed Luna, who beat Szczesny with a low strike off the post.

   Wenger has a fortnight to right the ship, otherwise the risk of a mutiny could be looming large. When players such as Wilshere, Giroud and Arteta publicly call for signings, it means they are aware of the glaring holes in the squad. It also means they are ambitious and want to contend for the title. A failure to sign top players would destroy the team’s morale and pave the way for an ugly season.