Arsenal just aren't good enough for Europe
Arsenal's display against Aston Villa was their worst in recent memory
After the kind of transfer window that Arsenal have had so far, fans couldn't be blamed for seeking a much-needed morale boost in the form of what they expected to be a comfortable win over Aston Villa on Saturday.
However, just when you thought things couldn't possibly get any worse for the Gunners, they just did. Arsenal Football Club have officially hit rock bottom just one game into the Barclays Premier League season.
As Arsenal's players trudged off the pitch and into the tunnel of the Emirates Stadium after putting on the most shameful of performances in a 1-3 loss to a Christian Benteke-inspired Villa, Arsene Wenger was made the target of a chorus of boos from what was left of the home supporters, most of whom had made their way out of the stadium (to beat the traffic rush, they will tell you, but their early departure was more likely due to their inability to stomach what they were witnessing at the Emirates).
While the boos were originally aimed at referee Anthony Taylor for his sending off of centre-back Laurent Koscielny and his generally poor handling of a game that that saw its fair share of poorly-timed, crunching tackles, the fact that they were then reserved for Wenger - who spent most of the game launching infuriated tirades of his own at the fourth official on the touchline - so late in the game is a tad unfair; Arsenal should have been booed well before the final whistle for putting on a performance so devoid of quality and creativity that you would've thought you were watching a relegation-threatened team rather than a contender for Champions League qualification.
Now, before I take off on what will come off as a thinly-veiled rant at Arsenal's performance and what it means for the club's season, I have to establish that, despite my being a Spurs fan, I genuinely do wish only the best for Arsenal and their manager Arsene Wenger (up to a limit; Spurs are still my bet for fourth spot), and to watch their display against Aston Villa was truly disillusioning, disheartening and disappointing.
Also, I am fully aware of referee Anthony Taylor's role in handing Arsenal the defeat, and I agree with the general consensus that Arsenal should feel hard done by the decisions that went against against them.
However, it would be unfair to say that Arsenal would have won the game had Koscielny been allowed to stay on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. Apart from Giroud's goal and a couple of energetic runs from Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal offered almost no meaningful penetration whatsoever.
Villa did ever so well to defend with two solid banks of four and Brad Guzan acting almost like a sweeper. Villa were excellent in their organisation (especially in the second half) and did not hesitate to close down Arsenal players in possession. They did not play the most sensational football themselves, but were breathtaking on the counter in the second period, taking full advantage of the absence of Koscielny and Arsenal's committing men up the pitch in search of the equaliser when the score was at 1-2.
Resolute in defence and brave on the attack, Villa thoroughly deserved the victory they earned against a team they were expected to lose to. Lambert and Co. will hopefully be able to use this result as a springboard to a decent mid-table finish this season.
And now, even though I struggle to recollect the exact events of the match - which is not such a bad thing in this case - in correct chronological order, the only way I can describe the Arsenal performance is by saying that, had he been on the pitch, Gervinho would probably have looked more likely to create chances than the players Wenger named in his starting XI.
The only player who can emerge from the Arsenal dressing room with his pride intact is the Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky. Despite being one of the older players on the pitch, he covered every blade of grass like his life depended on it, and was the only player who looked remotely capable of playing incisive, penetrating passes on the day.
He carved out a glorious opportunity in the second half, weaving his way through a melee of Villa shirts, only to be thwarted by the excellent Guzan at the final hurdle. Considering his age and his history of injury worries, it is unlikely that Rosicky will feature in the starting XI on a regular basis, but judging by his attitude today, he should be one of the first names on the team-sheet if fit and available.
As for his fellow midfielders, Wilshere and Ramsey cannot be faulted for their effort. Wilshere put up a typically lionhearted display, fighting to win possession and build attacks, while Ramsey, despite not being able to replicate his stellar performance in the 3-1 victory over Manchester City in pre-season, did the job he was assigned by picking up loose balls and linking Arsenal's defenders and midfielders with a tireless and efficient display.
However, the question just begs to be asked: which of these two players would you trust to come up with the final ball on a regular basis? At times, the British duo seemed content to roll the ball sideways rather than look up the pitch, and will have to work on this aspect of their respective repertoires if they are to develop into the truly world-class footballers they are touted as having the potential to become.
Up front, Giroud started his season on the perfect note, but was starved of quality delivery as the game progressed. Because Villa defended so well and paid particular attention to the former Montpellier striker, he wasn't afforded the space and time he needed to make an impact.
On the right side of midfield, Theo Walcott was, in one word, anonymous. I was going to go for woeful, but he'll have plenty of chances to achieve that over the season. Granted, he is a very fast footballer, but lacks the intelligence or the technique to utilise that pace.
The man who is considered his protege, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is probably the brightest young star in this Arsenal squad, and again cannot be faulted for the effort he put in against Villa. He is one of the few players in the squad who does not waste any time in trying to look up the pitch instead of sideways, and his enterprising approach to the game will stand him in good stead this season.
Full backs Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson were uninspiring at best, and Wojciech Szczezny is quickly developing into one of the most overrated keepers in the Premier League. The Pole should stop with the verbal abuse aimed at Spurs; focusing on his own game would do him the world of good.
In what will come as a jarring blow to the hopes of Arsenal fans for the season, even their star playmaker Santi Cazorla looked woefully off colour, and did not seem to be interested in taking part in a game where he was hounded by three Villa players every time he got the ball, and found himself robustly tackled to the ground more often than not.
All in all, Arsenal were poor from start to finish, and did absolutely nothing to inspire any confidence in the fans in attendance at the Emirates; the 1-3 loss to a team that only narrowly avoided relegation last season will serve as a much-needed eye opener for Wenger and Co.
I know that it is foolish to judge a team based on just one performance, but I still feel that this Arsenal team has a long way to go before it can consider itself worthy of a Europa League berth next season, let alone the Champions League. Forget about the fact that the Premier League has become so much more competitive than it was the last time Arsenal won the league; even in absolute terms, this Arsenal side is just not good enough to be worthy of a spot in the Champions League.
It is painful to think that this is the same club that went a league season unbeaten just 10 years ago; judging by the outing against Villa, this Arsenal team will not be able to (convincingly) win two games to rub together to make a third victory.
Forget about making the one marquee signing that fans have demanded for months; Arsene Wenger will need to buy at least five or six quality players if he is to deliver European football at the Emirates. However, after this performance, it is difficult to say how many world class players would be willing to sign at the Emirates.
Going back to the point about the fans booing Arsene Wenger for his woeful lack of success in bringing in quality players to the Emirates, the boos should instead have been aimed at the performance of the players who currently are in the Arsenal team.
These players cannot hide behind the referee's performance or the lack of transfer activity at the club; they were woeful out there, end of story. If they continue to put in performances like the one we were unfortunate to witness on the opening day of the 2013-14 season, Arsenal fans around the world will have a lot more to boo about over the next few months.
Arsenal really have hit rock bottom, and if the club continues to put in performances like the one against Villa, it will be a long, long time before Arsenal fans can even think about the Premier League title. For now, even European football seems a bit of a stretch.
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