When walking out of the Emirates yesterday after Arsenal's shocking 3-1 defeat against Aston Villa, it was hard not to feel that Arsenal had thrown it all away. Not just the match, but also the sense of opportunity: A Premier League without Alex Ferguson, where three of last years top four having changed managers, and, finally, we were told, there was all of this money to spend. Well, of course, the money hasn't been spent, and with Arsenal left with about 12 or 13 fit senior players and already 3 points down, Arsenal are already in a dangerous position with 4 very difficult games coming up in a short stretch.
That's not made easier by Arsenal playing in a manner that was reminiscent of Arsenal at their very worst last season: large stretches of the match went without Arsenal creating any chances. Having gone 1-0 up so early, one would've thought that Arsenal would go onto to dominate and score two or three goals, but they seemingly lacked the confidence to continue to play and create chances, and, thus, sat back when not in possession. Thus, when Arsenal did attack, they lacked the numbers to really do anything, and only a miscue between Antonio Luna and Brad Guzan gave Arsenal a half-chance.
However, sitting back last season did work for Arsenal for the last part of the season, and although uncomfortable, and perhaps a little lucky, three points would've done so much more for the team. But last year's defensive solidity was founded upon the partnership between Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, who complimented each other perfectly. With Arteta injured, Jack Wilshere came into the side, and while the partnership between Ramsey and Wilshere may eventually work one day, it clearly didn't work yesterday, continuing the trend when those two have played together. Ramsey is more of a runner than a sitter at this point, and, having come back from injury with Arsenal in bad form, Wilshere seems to have lost all notion of the discipline he showed when he played alongside Alex Song.
When the two play together, space is left behind, as Ramsey likes to contribute to attack before coming back to cover ground, and Wilshere continually bombs forward. It can make Arsenal very good in possession, but extremely susceptible on the counter attack, as Liverpool showed last year in the 2-2 draw at the Emirates and as Napoli showed two weekends ago when Marek Hamsik tore into space left behind by Wilshere to set up Goran Pandev. It happened again yesterday, as Gabriel Agbonlahor ran straight through Arsenal's midfield, evading a desperate and poorly though out challenge from Wilshere and another bad tackle from Koscielny to then win a penalty. The space Agbonlahor had was extraordinary, and it's hard not to think that had Mikel Arteta been on hand, things would've turned out differently.
Arsenal played better in the second half, as they pressed Villa, and started squeezing space. Tomas Rosicky had a glorious chance to put Arsenal ahead but fired over, and Arsenal were doing what they hadn't in the first half, but getting midfield runners in support of Olivier Giroud, and trying to play through Aston Villa. However, by pushing up, they were again susceptible to a counter attack, and while Anthony Taylor's decision to give a penalty was completely ludicrous, it came about because one dispossession of Santi Cazorla allowed Agbonhlaor to be straight in, as neither Ramsey nor Wilshere were in position to either support the defence or stop Agbonlahor before he got to the penalty box.
Arsenal still had the chances to level the game, and, perhaps, on another day, they would've got their side of the luck and won. But Aston Villa further exposed weaknesses that many were already painfully aware of. When Mikel Arteta is missing, Arsenal generally play poorly, and while that is a testament to the importance and general excellence of Arteta, it is also because Arsenal do not have a single other defensively minded midfielder. Last year, they somehow got through the season without a backup, but thus far haven't moved to change that in the summer.
Now, the lack of a defensive midfielder has cost Arsenal points. Furthermore, it still holds true that Arsenal need an injection of creativity. Like last season, there were large stretches yesterday where they didn't create enough for the possession they had, and rather than building on a one-goal advantage, they let Aston Villa come back into the match. In the last two seasons, new signings not playing for Arsenal in pre-season has meant the side has sacrificed points by taking time to gel. This season looks to be the same, except now there's an injury crisis and a shortage of first team players, and this time, it is entirely of our own making.