Arsenal were held to a goalless draw at Villa Park after a hard-fought encounter under heavy rain.
Arsene Wenger rested Wilshere, Vermaalen and Sagna, with the upcoming midweek encounter at the Goodison Park in mind. The formation was again a hybrid of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 with Ramsey’s movement being the key switch from one to the other. Szczesny started at the goal. Gibbs returned at left back after his injury layoff. Koscielny was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Jenkinson started at right back. In central midfield, Aaron Ramsey was paired with Mikel Arteta. Podolski was on the left, and Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right as Walcott is still injured. Cazorla was behind Giroud who started as the central striker.
From the early minutes, Villa’s game plan was to press high up the pitch and prevent Arsenal from settling into a passing game. Somewhat different from Arsenal’s recent games, however, the home side’s press did not specifically concentrate on Arteta, but targeted whoever dropped deep (Ramsey, Cazorla and even Giroud) to build play from the back. This mobile pressing cover had bite and it was effective as Arsenal were denied time and space on the ball. The heavy rain also helped Villa’s efforts. Arsenal, on the other hand, sat deep whenever Villa had the ball and preferred to keep their shape.
One visible aspect in the first half was Giroud dropping too deep probably due to his frustration of not seeing much of the ball (as this piece on Arseblog mentions, the player who passed the ball most times to Giroud was Mertesacker (10 times)), which indicates the extent that Villa’s pressing pushed Arsenal back. Overall, French striker’s movement was good when it was lateral, and it was his delicate touch to Ramsey that created Arsenal’s first real opening in the 29th minute: the Welshman released Oxlade on the right who tried to find Podolski in the 6-yard box. When Clark intercepted the ball, Ramsey had a chance to shoot inside the box, but the shot was saved by Guzan. This would be Arsenal’s only shot on target in the whole game.
Villa’s hard work all across the pitch also reaped some half chances of their own. When Szczesny tried to collect a long ball inside the left channel, the slippery surface carried him outside the penalty box with the ball in his hands. Aston Villa worked the resulting free-kick brilliantly: Bannan’s deceptive cutback found Clark unmarked on the penalty spot. His shot was deflected to Weimann, who scored but the goal was correctly ruled offside.
Arsenal’s big chance of the half came when Koscielny started a move by bursting forward from the back. Cazorla fed Giroud’s run on the left. Koscielny, who continued his run, received Giroud’s low cross completely unmarked in the box, but scooped the ball high with his left foot when scoring looked much easier.
The second half started at a much higher tempo, and Arsenal looked more dangerous in the first 15 minutes. First, Cazorla combined with Oxlade-Chamberlain, received the return ball, yet his shot was narrowly wide. Minutes later, when Aston Villa gifted possession in the center of the park, Cazorla released Podolski on the left, but the German’s cross to the near post was well-handled by Guzan. In the 55th minute, another Giroud flick created space for Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right flank, but when the winger sent in a low cross, Ramsey was not able to guide the ball into the net at the near post. Villa responded in kind: after Podolski lost the ball under pressure in Arsenal’s half, Benteke turned inside from the right channel, and saw his dangerous shot deflected out for a corner.
The game was hardly a good spectacle given the adverse conditions, unless you like that kind of scrappy affair on a wet and cold Midlands evening. Both teams were working hard, but lacking any cutting edge in dangerous areas. When Gibbs and Ramsey worked an opening on the left, Podolski received the ball inside the box, and his shot on the turn was blocked by Lichaj. From the resulting corner, Giroud’s flick was slashed wide by Ramsey at the far post. Then, Villa threw another good punch, after a brilliant interplay between the substitute Holman and Benteke through the center created space for Agbonlahor in the box, but Szczesny made a good save.
Around the 70th minute, Gervinho replaced Podolski on the wide left position, but the Ivorian looked completely off the pace during his 20 minutes in the game with his touch heavier than an obese elephant. Wenger also replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain with Arshavin on the right as the game entered into the last 15 minutes, delicately poised. Another good Aston Villa move through Benteke found Holman in a central shooting position, and Szczesny tipped the Australlian’s rocket off the crossbar. Quite inexplicably, Wenger replaced Giroud in the last 4 minutes with Coquelin, and shifted Gervinho to the striker position. Arsenal’s best chance in the dying minutes came when Arshavin’s delicious ball into the 6-yard box was intercepted by Clark’s last ditch tackle as Gervinho looked certain to score in the goal mouth.
After last week’s trashing at the hands of Manchester City, Aston Villa showed a great team ethic and worked very hard all game long. Not for the first time this season, Arsenal were not able impose their passing game under Villa’s relentless pressure on the ball. The draw was a fair result. What is a little depressing for Arsenal fans, though, is that this season such draws in away games against relegation zone opponents after mediocre performances feel quite normal.
Last season, when Arsenal tied away from home against similar opposition, I was at least able to get pissed off. Now, the feeling is similar to the one when your 20 year old son does not listen to you anymore. Perhaps, like their team, the traveling Arsenal fans also “lacked a little bit of sharpness today” as they did not understand at all why Wenger took off Giroud after sending in two wingers for better delivery from the flanks, as they chanted “You do not know what you are doing.” But to his credit, at least Wenger did not start Ramsey on the right wing, despite Walcott’s injury. I would expect him to pair Coquelin and Arteta in the center and unleash Ramsey on the wing!
All joking aside, the midweek encounter at Everton will see an equally hard physical battle against opponents with better technical qualities than Villa.