Aston Villa vs. Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Hard-Fought Draw
The game could not have started more dully, with both sides filling the first half-hour with sloppy passing and slow ball movement by their respective defenders.
Eventually, though, the mood intensified and each team began to press for a goal. Or at least I suppose they wanted goals. For all their possession, Arsenal had one solitary shot on goal, and only one of Villa's really troubled Wojciech Szczesny.
In the end, Arsenal will think of this match as two points lost, while Aston Villa will regard it as one gained. The draw was a fair result, and one that taught us a great deal.
Let's examine six things we learned from this game.
Arsenal Need Wojciech Szczesny
I don't have any huge issues with Vito Mannone, and he did surprisingly well during his time in for Wojciech Szczesny, but we were reminded once again today why it's so important to have the Pole in goal.
Szczesny's overall confidence, assuredness and commanding presence between the sticks gave Arsenal a massive boost, but one moment late in the game will define his performance.
From about 25 yards out, Brett Holman lined up a speculative effort and ended up uncorking a missile that was bound for the top of the net. Using every millimeter of his 6'5" frame, Szczesny leapt and managed to get a fingertip on the ball.
Holman's shot ended up cracking off the crossbar and out of play, and Arsenal have Szczesny to thank for saving a point.
It's All in the Fight
Arsenal obviously had more talent on the pitch at Villa Park, but the home side just worked too hard for the Gunners to get a good look at goal.
They never stopped pressing in midfield, hamstringing Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta and making Arsenal continuously pass it back to Per Mertesacker, who got on the ball far more than expected.
When Arsenal put together a decent spell of possession, they were not able to advance the ball very far. Villa kept a solid, uniform defensive shape and the Gunners only got one shot on goal all day.
In the end, Aston Villa just looked like they wanted the result a bit more.
Arsene Wenger's Subs Are Predictably Unpredictable
A common sight during the match was Arsene Wenger stewing and pacing along the touchline, cajoling his team to get forward and press harder.
He couldn't directly control that, but the substitutions, which he could, were just as inexplicable.
Taking the tepid Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain off for Andrey Arshavin was understandable, but removing the industrious Lukas Podolski for Gervinho was a bit hard to justify.
What was completely dumbfounding, though, was hauling off Olivier Giroud, Arsenal's most potent weapon in their most recent games for Francis Coquelin, a defensive midfielder. It would have made sense if the roles were reversed, but I cannot imagine what Arsene Wenger was thinking.
Per Mertesacker Is Undroppable
Before the game, there was a bit of controversy over who would occupy the two center-back slots, with Thomas Vermaelen eventually losing out to Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.
Interestingly, the latter was never even mentioned as someone Arsene Wenger might drop. He certainly repaid that faith against Aston Villa.
Constantly called upon in possession, Mertesacker handled the more subtle aspects of defending with aplomb, and frequently used his superb anticipation to make last-ditch challenges in or near the box.
Even if it means benching the captain, Mertesacker must be kept in the side if selection is truly based on merit.
Arsenal Fans Are Even More Bipolar Than Once Thought
Arsenal supporters are a special sort. They latch on to even the tiniest scraps of hope, searching for a way out of the perennial emotional doldrums.
What they end up enduring is a rollercoaster of passion, with each high being dangerously high and each low filled with vitriol and rage—usually spewed on the Internet. All of the sudden, Arsenal are a club that cares solely about profit, with zero players that are proud to wear the shirt.
Fans need to have a hard look at their team and themselves. Two good results—two, even if one was a big derby win—does not indicate that a team's struggles are over. Nor does one draw against a team that is eminently beatable.
Arsenal do not have title potential as they are now, and Arsene Wenger should not be thrown out. But such is the bipolarity of supporters that both views can be expressed with equal vigor in the span of a single week.
Arsenal Are Just as Inconsistent as Ever
As I said, Arsenal fans desperately want to cling to any sign of consistency from their team, but the only thing they can rely on is the infuriating opposite.
After two consecutive performances in which the Gunners moved the ball speedily around midfield and penetrated their opponents' defences, they spun out with one shot on target and little productive possession against Aston Villa.
It's a narrative that is quite familiar by now: Arsenal gain confidence and momentum over the course of a week or so, and proceed to squander it for unclear reasons against a lesser opponent.
The Gunners' midweek Champions League match against Montpellier might be blamed for causing fatigue, and Arsene Wenger's tactics will certainly be called into question by many. But the bottom line is that Arsenal once again failed in rather dismal fashion where others would succeed.
Look for a decisive victory over Everton this Wednesday.