After the joy of beating Manchester United and seeing the youngsters dismantle Wigan in the Carling Cup, Arsenal's schizophrenic season took another turn for the worse with an abject defeat at the hands of Aston Villa on Saturday. It was the Gunners' second loss of the season at Ashburton Grove and their fourth overall. With a third of the season gone, they are already nine points behind the league leaders and it would seem than any lingering hopes of challenging for the title have now been snuffed out. The way they played on Saturday, they cannot even be confident of finishing in fourth place.
In fairness to Aston Villa, they entirely deserved their victory. They showed more desire and strength than their hapless hosts and outgunned them in virtually every department. In the first half Villa missed a penalty and squandered arguably the best chance of the match. The half-time whistle came as a relief to Arsenal and they were fortunate to go in at the break with the scores still level.
Matters did not improve in the second period. Villa looked the more likely team and in the 69th minute took the lead courtesy of an own goal by Gael Clichy. Eleven minutes later, Gabby Agbonlahor sealed Arsenal's fate as he broke away, easily holding off William Gallas, to thrash a shot past Manuel Almunia.
In a way, it was hard to be upset at this outcome. The Gunners had been completely outplayed and comprehensively beaten. What is infuriating though is that we have been assured after the defeats to Fulham, Hull and Stoke that lessons had been learned and taken on board. Clearly, they have not.
Saturday's defeat cannot only be pinned on the players' attitude. Yet again, Arsenal lacked a dominating presence in midfield. Without anyone in the midfield to roll up their sleeves, make tackles and do the spade-work, the team consistently fails to get on top and dominate opponents. It is also having a detrimental effect on the team's key player, Cesc Fabregas. He is a man who looks to be short of form as it is and as a consequence of not having an enforcer next to him who will allow him to play is own game, the Spaniard looks lost and shadow of the player who was so impressive last term for Arsenal and in the summer for Spain.
The other big question mark falls upon William Gallas and his apparent lack of leadership skills. He seems to be totally unable to motivate the players around him and it is hard to see what he really brings to the party as a captain. Additionally, those who already had doubts about him will be feeling vindicated in the opinion after reading the comments attributed to him in an interview today. Putting it mildly, it was completely unbefitting of an Arsenal captain to say the things that he did. Putting it less mildly, he should be stripped of the captaincy immediately. He clearly does not have the respect of the other players and what happens behind closed doors should remain behind closed doors. He appears to be trying to exonerate himself of any blame for recent defeats but at the same time tries to pass the buck to all the other players. Surely one of the prime attributes of a captain ought to be that he is man enough to stand up and take responsibility for himself and the other players. After his tantrum at Birmingham last season, this interview is further proof that he is not worthy of the Arsenal captaincy and Arsene Wenger should show some strength of character by relieving him of the role. It was an experiment by Wenger to try to get Gallas on board with things at Arsenal and onside with the fans after his arrival from Chelsea, but it has failed. Swift and decisive action needs to be taken and the team needs to move on.
As if matters couldn't get much worse this week, the news that Theo Walcott dislocated a shoulder in training with England and will be out for three months comes as a hammer blow. One can argue about the pointlessness of international friendlies - or indeed international football full-stop - but it was an accident that could have happened at any time. It is just galling that it happened when he was playing for another team who don't happen to pay the player's wages.
Walcott's injury and Cesc's suspension for collecting five yellow cards so far this season mean that the midfield is looking diaphanous for Saturday's visit to Manchester City. Also missing will be Bacery Sagna who was stretched off against Villa. Kolo Toure also looks to be a doubt after picking up a knock on international duty. How the manager intends to reshuffle his pack will be a matter of conjecture up until an hour before kick off as there are no obvious replacements for these players. It would be great to think that he might trust a couple of the Carling Cup youngsters to step up to the plate but it is more likely that he will put his misguided faith in the likes of Alex Song to hold the midfield together. He is hardly an option that inspires much optimism. The return of Robin Van Persie provides one shaft of light in an otherwise dismal week and he will at least provide a few more attacking options in the absence of Walcott.
A good performance and positive result is needed at City on Saturday to restore confidence and once again get the players back on track. Which Arsenal team will turn out at Eastlands though? Will it be the one that plays swaggering, expansive football who can brush aside all-comers? Or the one that looks anaemic, gutless and lacking any sort of resolve who can be rolled over all too easily? We shall see.
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