Result: Aston Villa 1-0 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 21 July 2020
Venue: Villa Park
Starting XI: Martinez, Holding, Luiz, Kolasinac, Cedric, Torreira, Ceballos, Saka, Lacazette, Aubameyang, Nketiah
Subs: Macey, Bellerin, Tierney, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Willock, Xhaka, Smith, Pepe
Egypt international Trezeguet scored the only goal of the game as Aston Villa beat Arsenal 1-0 to kill off our hopes of qualifying for the Europa League via the Premier League.
On a night that saw the Gunners end the game with plenty of fire power on the pitch, Mikel Arteta’s side didn’t muster a shot on target. Worse, we looked like we could have played for another three days and that stat wouldn’t be threatened.
After the highs of the last week, this showing will have given Arteta plenty to think about. Coming out of lockdown our ambition was to qualify for the Champions League, now the best we can hope for is an eighth-place finish. Eighth. Let that sink in.
After the intensity of Saturday night’s game at Wembley, it was little surprise that Mikel Arteta opted for fresh legs at Villa Park. In total there were six changes from the side that started against Manchester City. In defence, Holding replaced the injured Mustafi, Kolasinac replaced Tierney and outside them, Cedric and Saka took up the wing-back slots in place of Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Torreira partnered Ceballos in midfield and Nketiah was given Pepe’s slot. Reiss Nelson missed out on the squad with a slight groin problem.
After consecutive back-against-the-wall performances, we knew we’d have more of the ball against Villa. The question was whether we’d do anything useful with it. After 45 minutes and with a sum total of zero shots on target, it’s fair to say we did not.
Dani Ceballos was a busy bee, darting this way and that, turning inside and out and playing lots of little passes to keep us ticking over, but all around him his teammates looked lethargic.
To be fair to Villa, who knew a win would lift them above Watford and out of the relegation zone, they had the measure of us pretty early on. We wanted to work space for overlaps on the flanks and they tried to minimise that.
When Saka and Cedric did find pockets of space, we needed them to deliver quality into the box, but our crossing was atrocious. By the 20 minute mark the only real talking point was the whirring of a plane above the ground which carried a banner with the message “Back Arteta. Kroenke Out”.
Perhaps Cedric was trying to show our American owner how to back out of something on 27 minutes when he turned away from a Trezeguet shot after a corner had reached the Egypt international at the back post. The forward’s effort was in before Martinez even moved and out of nothing, the hosts had the lead. (1-0)
Replays of the corner, won after Ceballos’ miscontrolled a ball into our box forcing David Luiz to scramble clear, were not pretty. Aubameyang was literally sharing a joke with Tyrone Mings when the defender darted free of him to flick Hourihane’s set piece to the back post. We should be deducting a few quid off his wage demands for that.
Would Arsenal step things up a notch? European qualification was on the line after all. Erm, no. If anything the home side looked the more likely to score. Trezeguet had a header saved by Martinez and Grealish flashed over after being allowed to cut onto his right foot.
Arteta’s response was to replace the booked Torreira with Xhaka. We needed to get more men into dangerous situations so it was promising to see Kolasinac and Ceballos trying to play a bit inside the Villa box. It didn’t come off, but at least it showed intent.
Saka and Aubameyang both had half chances. As did Villa’s Guilbert who took advantage of ponderous defending at a corner by Holding and Luiz. The Brazilian didn’t last much longer. He and Saka, who looked out of sorts, were replaced by Tierney and Pepe. We had a lot of attackers on the pitch for a side who still hadn’t mustered a shot on target.
That was still the case with 15 minutes to go when Villa hit us with a quick break that should have seen substitute Davis score. Played in by Grealish, he eased past Holding but shanked his shot wide of Martinez’s post.
We should have made Villa pay. Nketiah climbed high to meet a Pepe corner but his effort came off the post and bounced back into Reina’s hands. The Spaniard even dropped the ball again but still it didn’t go in.
Back came the home side. Martinez had to parry McGinn’s effort. Our final throw of the dice was to send on Willock for Cedric, who’d attempted 11 crosses and not found an Arsenal man with any of them.
We continued to struggle. Into the final minutes, Mings cleared a Pepe free-kick and Reina easily claimed a cross from the Ivorian. Just to be clear, Villa didn’t have to defend shots. We seemed to forget that those were important. Even in four minutes of stoppage time, we just plodded about like our legs were made of mashed potato.
There’s no sugarcoating it, this was a truly terrible performance. It lacked energy and creativity and, after two games in seven days where we showed it, heart. Granted, the home side had more riding on the result than us but we still had skin in the game; finishing ahead of Sp*rs, not being as shit as Sheffield United, qualifying for Europe.
Now all our eggs are in the FA Cup final basket. If we don’t beat Chelsea, we face a first season without European football in 25 years.