Garde’s team selection was clearly designed to attempt to contain Arsenal in midfield, break via Jordan Ayew and Scott Sinclair, and aim for the head of Rudy Gestede. Unfortunately, this gameplan was torn to shreds inside seven minutes as Alan Hutton was rightly penalised for trying to get the shirt off Theo Walcott’s back after being beaten all ends up by the forward. Olivier Giroud converted, and it was game over after seven minutes.
Villa’s confidence understandably vanished after the setback, and the rest of the first half was a meek showing. Gestede had already had to head an effort off the line before the visitors put the game beyond doubt seven minutes before half-time.The ease with which Arsenal cut through us for the second goal was infuriating, if not entirely unsurprising. I would argue the point with the neutrals and journalists who suggested that it was a top-quality goal – pretty much any side could have scored that against us, given the complete lack of spine in our team which allowed them to waltz 70 yards or so down the centre of the pitch.
Carlos Sanchez was one of the main culprits, typifying a poor performance from the midfielder – another defining point in his 90 minutes came when he gave the ball away on the edge of the Arsenal box with numerous teammates around him and Villa fully committed forward, thus turning attack into desperate defence in a matter of seconds.
Meanwhile, in attack Rudy Gestede won the majority of the headers that he contested, but players failing to win the second ball seems to be a problem as old as time itself for Villa. However, although he can win a ball in the air, the former Blackburn Rovers man is so one-dimensional it almost defies belief, and he fluffed his lines when he really should have headed on target in the second half.
While he doesn’t have the ball himself, or when the ball is at his feet (any time, essentially, that he is not waiting for the ball to drop out of the sky) his lack of movement really is astounding – the spectator alongside me in the Holte suggested that we could stick the statue of William McGregor up front instead and we’d still carry the same goal threat.
It’s a dangerous game to long for the return of a missing player – long-term injury makes the heart grow stronger, after all – but I really struggle to accept that Libor Kozak would be a worse option in attack than Gestede.
Not only does our position get more desperate every week, we also seem to set a new unwanted record every week. The latest feat is that Villa have now gone winless in nine home league matches in a row, a club record. We have half the points tally of Sunderland in 19th, are eight points off safety (even that would only see us competing to escape on goal difference), and come Saturday it will be EIGHTEEN weeks since our only league win of the season.
What has been really demoralising has been seeing other teams battling to avoid relegation (although I’m not even entirely sure you can argue that we’re battling at the moment) picking up points against the odds. Bournemouth have beaten Chelsea and Manchester United on successive weekends, Newcastle won at Spurs on Sunday, Sunderland pulled off a smash-and-grab at high-flying Crystal Palace a few weeks ago, and so on.
Villa are now embarking upon a four-match run by the end of which we will either have put ourselves in with a fighting chance, or have seen the last shred of hope wiped out.
Newcastle at St. James’ Park is up next – a ground at which we haven’t won since Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer did their impression of two drunken men fighting over the last kebab of the night a decade ago. Then it’s West Ham at home on Boxing Day, Norwich away and Sunderland at home. Realistically, if we don’t win three of those games (two and a couple of draws at an absolute minimum) then we’re done for.
Garde can only pick his best side – beyond that, it’s up to the players. We need belief and passion, and a huge increase in quality. We need luck. We need the players to realise what they are fighting for, how serious a situation we are in. We’re Aston Villa, and we need to fight.
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