By Shane Thomas
ASTON VILLA 0-0 ARSENAL
Arsenal gave a performance that mirrored the miserable weather in Birmingham yesterday, as the match against Aston Villa ended in a drab goalless draw that by no means flattered the home side.
Arsenal actually made a strong start to the match. The Gunners have often been blighted by slow starts, no more so than in the recent wins over Tottenham and Montpellier, so it was encouraging to see positive intent in the passing, especially down the left-hand side.
Twelve months ago, I never thought I'd be typing these words, but the return of Kieran Gibbs is a huge boon for Arsenal. The encouraging start to the season began to stutter once Gibbs was absent with injury, and the good working relationship he has forged with Lukas Podolski has been a key facet of Arsenal's attacking play.
This shouldn't be a huge surprise. In the modern game we seldom see wingers any more, which means the central areas of the pitch tend to be clogged up with industrious runners, flair playmakers and centre-forwards. In lieu of this, the only width you see comes from the full-backs, and Gibbs' ability to cover the left flank allows Podolski more chance to make the central runs from where he can be more dangerous.
However, with the early dominance of the ball not bringing a goal, Villa managed to execute their game plan onto the match. When Arsenal lost to Chelsea back in September, not only did they miss out on three points, but they would suffer something even more damaging; their game plan was exposed to the rest of the Premier League.
While Santi Cazorla has been identified as Arsenal's dangerman, Mikel Arteta has an equally important role in the side. When Arteta is allowed time and space, he often finds Cazorla in time and space. It's now increasingly common to see opposition midfields pressing high on Arteta, and Villa did this superbly with Gabriel Agbonlahor, Barry Bannan and the impressive Ashley Westwood - my man of the match - smothering Arsenal's attempts to find the goal that would have won the game.
I've always felt Arsenal are an effective attacking force when they pass the ball quickly, taking no more than two touches before passing or shooting. However, the conditions were a nagging hindrance. It seemed that the slippery environs meant the players needed to take an extra touch to set themselves. This extra touch meant that they were often unable to find a way through Villa's impressive rearguard.
In the inclement climate, Arsenal were like a shiny smartphone that was struggling to function after being accidentally dropped in the toilet. With Villa's midfield extinguishing the Gunners attacking threat, it became a battle of industry rather than technical skill. And that's a battle that this Arsenal squad look ill equipped for.
This isn't to confuse industry with focus and concentration. In seasons past, there would have been a lack of defensive solidity, and Arsenal would have lost 0-1. But the one positive they can take is that the back four and goalkeeper all had strong games - both Wojciech Szczesny and Per Mertesacker both made key interventions that preserved the clean sheet. They will be needed to do so again on Wednesday night against Everton in a game that is approaching must-win territory.
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