Aston Villa vs. Arsenal Preview

It was just over 13 months ago that Arsenal were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa, and Chris Hudson’s post-match promo on Ivan Gazidis, Arsene Wenger, Tim Payton and John Cross effectively paid off Robbie from Arsenal Fan TV’s mortgage. It was a truly spectacular day, all things considered – Arsenal pretty much went about devising the most Arsenal-like home defeat ever recorded. It was a full-house on the Arsenal-loss bingo card. Squandered an early lead: check. Penalty conceded: check (x2). Laurent Koscielny mishap: check. Player(s) subbed due to injury: check. Late goal conceded on the counter-attack: check. “Spendsomefackingmoney” chants: Check.

The Gunners are going to have to really pull something special out of the bag to top that performance, but after their midweek display away to Dortmund, Wenger’s side are definitely in good shape for it.

Fans have been pondering the reason why their side have been so bad, and now seem to have placed the blame squarely on the subtle formation change from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. It is funny how Arsene Wenger turned down the chance to Cesc Fabregas in the summer because he wouldn’t fit into Arsenal’s system, before changing to a formation that would only actually benefit Cesc Fabregas.

Let’s not pretend, however, that a tactical re-jig is the only reason that Arsenal – excluding Community Shield matches that their opponents obviously didn’t care about – have been rubbish in every game they’ve played this season. A more likely theory would be the dip in form of Aaron Ramsey directly affecting that of the team. Arsenal’s performances last season can basically be split into two categories: Games when Ramsey played (good) and games when Ramsey was injured (bad). Him playing and playing badly is rather uncharted territory for this post-Gervinho Arsenal, but it seems as though the dependency on Ramsey is already mirroring that of Henry, Fabregas and van Persie in years gone by. In other words, Arsenal could probably do with Aaron Ramsey playing well.

Anyway, Arsenal’s record at Villa Park is actually pretty good. They haven’t been beaten there in the league since 1998 when – in not-very-Arsenal-like fashion then, but very-Arsenal-like fashion now – they threw away a 2-goal lead to lose 3-2. Since then, it’s generally been a mixture of 0-0s and narrow Arsenal victories. At the risk of venturing a serious prediction here, one of these two outcomes is probably quite likely to happen again.

It is quite easy to overlook the fact that Aston Villa are actually second in the table. This is mainly because after ten straight weeks of occupying that position during the off-season, they’ve managed to camouflage themselves from the select few who actually study the league table after four rounds of matches.

However, with a fourth-annual result at Anfield under their collective belt (which was actually a clause inserted in the Stuart Downing deal), Aston Villa may feel pretty confident about their chances of picking up a win against a deflated Arsenal side. Either that, or they’ll try to play for a nil-nil, then look around in a rather bewildered manner, mouthing “what do we do now?” to each other when Alexis Sanchez finally breaks the deadlock in the 76th minute.

Arsenal Could Do With Not Crumbling

Over the past six or seven years, Arsenal have been a club striving to achieve one thing – and no, it’s not a trophy. Well, okay, winning some silverware would probably help, but if the Wengerian attitude had ever been ‘just win a trophy, any trophy’ there would have been some won by now, but a few less top-four finishes too – and that’s Rafa Benitiez’s gimmick. There would also have been more painful and – let’s face it – hilarious incidents like the 2011 Carling Cup Final. So no, not simply trophies; above all else, Arsenal desire one thing: to be taken seriously. Seriously.

Since Patrick Vieira ran away celebrating his winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup Final (and kept on running until he reached Turin), Arsenal have challenged for the title, in the broadest sense of the term, on three occasions. Each time the venture has started promisingly, and each time football pundits have been asked the same question: “is it time we started taking Arsenal seriously?” Of course, the answer is irrelevant. The question itself implies the main problem – Arsenal aren’t taken seriously. Anyone or thing who is considered to be prominent or important doesn’t need a bi-annual vote of confidence to reaffirm their position. They are, or they aren’t.

In the grander scheme of things Arsenal are, obviously, a pretty good football team, but because of the outrageous nature of each of their seasons, it’s very hard to take them seriously – they’re hilarious. Arsenal fans are often accused of being fickle and hysterical, which is pretty fair if you consult the very decent body of evidence they themselves document on social media, but then not many teams are quite as bipolar as Arsenal are. Maybe Liverpool – but their fans are often tarred with the same (or at least a similar) brush.

Arsenal’s 4-4 draw at Newcastle was a perfect example of this. No Premier League side had ever thrown away a four goal lead before, yet no side combined sheer brilliance with slapstick awfulness the way Arsenal circa 2011 did. Which other teams in recent memory would be good enough to take a 4-0 away lead at half-time, yet also bad enough to completely bugger it up in the second half?

This also works on a larger scale, as the conclusions to of each of Arsenal’s three most recent title campaigns have shown.  In the 2007/08 season, Arsenal travelled to Birmingham City five points clear at the top of the league, having lost just once in 26 games. In 2009/10, Wenger’s side found themselves top on 27 games in, and were considered in some corners as ‘dark horses’ in a three-way race with Chelsea and Manchester United. The following season (that’s 2010/11), they were second after 27 matches, but just a point behind Manchester United, who were still to visit The Emirates.

Of course, at around each of these respective points Arsenal went from saturation and into decline, resulting in them effectively conceding the title by mid-April. Rather than following through with the potential they showed by winning 6-1 at Goodison Park, 3-1, against then-title holders Chelsea, or 2-1 against Guardiola’s Barcelona, Wenger’s team collapsed in comical fashion, making said victories seem more like build-up to a springtime punch-line than serious demonstrations of ability.

Arsenal should win the FA Cup this season, considering they are the only Premier League side left in the tournament who aren’t Hull City, yet it still feels like another opportunity for everyone to laugh at them if/when it goes Pete Tong. Even if they do avoid embarrassment by winning the competition – which would unquestionably be good – finishing fourth would still raise questions about how much they have actually improved. Since finishing second to Chelsea in 2005, fourth is where Arsenal have placed in five of the last eight seasons, reaching only third in the other three.

Indeed, their late-season collapses could just be viewed as simply as regression to the mean. In the same way as they conspire to actually finish strongly when their Champions League spot comes under threat, Arsenal fade away every time they attempt to perform above themselves over 38 games. In fact, even the few times Arsenal have finished third in recent years is when a team who traditionally perform better than they do in the league have a far more significant collapse – e.g. Liverpool’s demise in 2010 and Chelsea’s prioritising of their Champions League campaign in 2012. Manchester United’s post-Ferguson decline could also fall into this bracket, should Arsenal fend off Liverpool’s assault on the automatic Champions League positions.

Obviously the FA Cup is nice, but would serve as more of a pain-killer than antidote for Arsenal. It would obviously quell the trophy cabinet/empty/dust jokes recycled by Footy Humour accounts, but the truth remains that Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri didn’t leave to win domestic cup competitions; they left to win league titles.  There is a train of thought that Arsenal’s side need to learn how to become “winners”, and winning one cup would be the catalyst for more; this theory is often partnered with the example of Jose Mourinho winning the League Cup before going on to triumph in bigger competitions at Stamford Bridge. But let’s not kid ourselves – Mourinho’s Chelsea were the strongest team in the country, and won back-to-back titles because of that. Anyone who thinks they’d have done anything other than win those two Premier Leagues had they lost to Liverpool in the 2005 Carling Cup final is, er, wrong.

If Arsenal do indeed suffer from vertigo, and need a cup-win to remedy that, then the FA Cup needs to be won. However, being able to keep pace with Manchester City and Chelsea until the end of the season could be far more useful for Arsenal. This would, at the very least, prove to everyone (themselves included) that this current project of Wenger’s has more potential than any of those from the previous eight years.

Jack Wilshere isn’t as good as everyone thinks he is

Forward: I wrote this for Arsenal Latest in August. The tagline for this blog comes from one of the comments on that original post.

Since Dennis Bergkamp joined Arsenal in 1995, N5 had been home to the most talented footballer in the country (give or take a Cristiano Ronaldo). Thierry Henry joined as the aviophobic Dutchman entered his thirties; Cesc Fabregas upped his game when Henry departed, and then Robin van Persie finally decided to stay injury-free for longer than 6 months, propelling him to definitely-important-PFA-Player-of-the-Year-winning heights.

But now they’ve all gone. All of them. Succumbing to old age, Barcelona, Barcelona again, and a metaphorical little boy-cum-careers advisor, respectively.

So what happens when the one-man-team loses its one man?

Does someone else try to take their place, or does the cliché die? Well, both. The former first, and the latter second, that’s why I wrote them in that order. But the cliché doesn’t die valiantly, and in a blaze of Hollywood “no I in team” glory, but a whimper (unless, of course, you win things AND ARSENAL DOESN’T WIN THINGS LOLZ).

In light of Robin van Persie’s departure just over a year ago, the wisdom of crowds named Jack Wilshere as Arsenal’s most valuable asset. Anyone who makes a joke about Arsenal selling their best player now uses Wilshere as the default. Any Henry Winter clone who wants to construct a narrative about an Arsenal hero looks straight to Arsenal’s number 10.

But there’s a problem here. Have you spotted it yet? If not, go back and read that first bit again. I’ll wait for you… Got it now? Good. The problem is, of course, that Jack Wilshere isn’t the league’s best player, or indeed Arsenal’s best player.

Wilshere probably wouldn’t even be in Arsenal’s best XI at the moment.      

Naturally, he is one of Arsenal’s most gifted players, but doesn’t really fit into any part of the midfield. He’s too young, and not direct or penetrative enough to play where his squad number suggests (in “the hole”), yet doesn’t have the discipline, strength or defensive qualities to partner Arteta in a deeper role.

This partly isn’t Wilshere’s fault. You can’t blame him for Arteta, who isn’t mobile enough to cover the back four on his own, and you can’t blame him for Rosicky or Cazorla, who aren’t really capable of dropping deeper when he goes gallivanting up-field. But his need to be accommodated for means he does have issues within his game that need to be addressed.

Are Game of Thrones references in vogue? Okay, I’ll use one then. If you don’t watch the programme, you can skip this next paragraph.

Jack Wilshere is definitely Tyrion: small, crafty, intelligent and sharp-tongued. But all this often gets him into trouble, so he can be pretty vulnerable without Bronn – that would be someone strong and quick enough to jump to his vertically challenged partner’s aid, yet also offers more intelligence than your average bodyguard. That was Alex Song, but he upped and left a year ago, so now Wilshere is stuck with Arteta, who is probably more comparable to Varys.

But Jack Wilshere is important to England though, right?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in this land, Jack Wilshere’s one-eye is his ability to pass a ball.

Yes, Carrick can do that too, but he’s 32 now, so he’d be a constitutional monarch at best. In the fallout from the 2010 World Cup, there seemed to finally be a realisation in this country that, in order to have a good football team, having good footballers might help. How convenient, then, that Wilshere’s breakthrough at Arsenal came the very next season. And look, he’s small and good at passing, just like those Spanish guys that win everything!

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I am, so there you go.

Of course, Wilshere is a good player. But this in itself is part of the problem: he knows it. And, just like everyone else in the country, he overrates himself.

Jack Wilshere absolutely believes his own hype.   

And this is where we return to the one-man-team thing. Everyone knows it is rubbish, yet so many people lap up the narrative. Don’t believe me? One of the biggest pieces of football fiction in this country is Roy of the Rovers: a story essentially based around one man winning matches virtually by himself. But we all know real football doesn’t work like this, just don’t tell Jack Wilshere. Or perhaps do.

Actually yes, scrap that last bit, definitely tell Jack Wilshere.

You see, Wilshere has a massive Roy of the Rovers complex, and it needs to stop. When Arsenal are losing and/or playing badly, little Jack decides to *deepens voice* ‘take responsibility.’ This equates to him picking up the ball in the centre circle, and running past three players and being tackled by the fourth. To an extent, the thought is appreciated, so thanks Jack, but as gallant as these efforts are, they aren’t particularly productive.

For Arsenal, having Jack Wilshere is good. He’s a home-grown talent who’ll sell shirts and probably does have some affinity with the club. And one day, if he stays fit, he might be Arsenal’s best player. Hell, maybe even the league’s best player. But for now, let’s at least look for someone else to pin all our hopes and dreams on. Hi Santi Cazorla!