Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: Scram Before the Cops Get Here

There is an odd sort of satisfaction in watching your team steal a game that they had absolutely no business getting anything out of. Perhaps it's just the nervous energy spilling over, or the realization that we've been mugged so many times by no-mark clubs like this that it's nice to return the favor for bloody once. Either way, Arsenal leave Birmingham with three vital points, and gain a measure of revenge against the manager who fluked the League Cup final over us AND presided over the Matt Taylor horror tackle.

The starting XI was a bit of a mish-mash with the various injuries and the suspension to Alex Song. The front three and the keeper obviously remained the same, but the boss opted for Francis Coquelin on the right rather than play Ignasi Miquel. So, Thomas Vermaelen was deployed on the left, with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in central defense. Mikael Arteta and Aaron Ramsey kept their places as expected, with Emmanuel Frimpong stepping in for Song.

It is a bit of a nerve-racking teamsheet, that...and it was made no better by the sight of the team coming out of the tunnel in that horrid Wycombe Wanderers strip. Someone at Nike should burn in hell for eternity for foisting that on an unsuspecting public. Besides, hasn't anyone at the club worked out by now that every time we let that NON-ARSENAL color into our lives, we have crappy seasons? It's only fit for the sleeves of our away kit, which should always and forever be yellow. Why is this so hard?

With that mini-rant out of the way, the home side could easily have taken the lead after just five minutes were it not for the positioning of Wojceich Szczesny and frankly a tame header by Gabriel Agbonlahor. An early corner was won by Stilyan Petrov, and Charles N'Zogbia played a short give-and-go off of it. The cross came to Agbonlahor on the back post, who was wide open thanks to Coquelin blowing his coverage. The header was right at Szczesny though, who did well to direct the rebound out to safety. The immediate danger was averted, but it was a worrying sign that this would not be the same Aston Villa that gave Liverpool so little of a fight.

Sure enough, Villa were a bad final ball away from a goal in the 10th minute. Arteta lost a header to Petrov, and Agbonlahor was away down the left. No Arsenal player was anywhere near him, beginning a worrying trend that lasted for most of the match of the fullbacks standing much too far off their marks, ceding far too much space for crosses to come in. Koscielny came over late to pressure, but the Agbonlahor got the pass away. Stephen Ireland torched Mertesacker for pace, but the pass came in to close to Szczesny, who collected calmly.

Just a minute later, Villa again threatened, as Brad Guzan's long punt was collected by N'Zogbia on the left. The Villains were obviously targeting Coquelin, and getting joy from it as the young Frenchman was easily muscled off the ball. His centering feed was much better, but Ramsey made a brilliant saving tackle to play it off of Agbonlahor and out. That was to be the Welshman's only positive contribution to the match, but how important it was at the time!

(I'm so excited I get to do this transition for us, for once.)

So, of course, Arsenal came up the other end and scored.

An Arsenal corner came to nothing, but Arteta worked hard to shield it on its way out for a throw. He played it out to Theo Walcott, who hared down the left. He left Ciaran Clark for dead with a 360 spin move, and the Irishman was forced to hold onto his shirt as he went by. To his credit, Walcott stayed on his feet. To inexperienced referee Jonathan Moss' credit, he immediately and bravely pointed to the spot. A lot of guys would have let that go, but it was a nailed-on penalty for me.

Up stepped Robin van Persie...and despite Guzan cheating off his line early, our captain hammered an unstoppable thunderbolt into the top-right corner. It may have been an undeserved lead, but it a lead it was all the same! Incidentally, the goal tied Thierry Henry's mark of 34 goals in a calendar year.

Quick aside: Please spare me the "one-man team" stuff, at least on this occasion. Theo won the penalty, and you'll see later that RVP was not our Man of the Match...not by a longshot.

Anyway, Guzan had to be sharp on a chance just a minute later, or else Arsenal would have doubled their advantage. Mertesacker won the ball from Clark and passed it to RVP, who had dropped deep. The Dutchman's long ball over the defense was perfectly weighted, and Walcott ran onto it perfectly. Sadly. Guzan read the play well and blocked with his chest...a smart move considering he was close to the edge of the penalty area.

Villa managed to recover though, and seized the momentum back. A mirror image of their first two chances saw Marc Albrighton fire in a cross from aces of space (Vermaelen nowhere in sight), and again Ireland was in position with Mertesacker beat. His slide just missed the cross though, or else they would have scored the kind of goal that badly deflates a team mentally.

Speaking of mental deflation, Moss started to feel the nerves or something because his decision-making became more erratic. Villa were getting away with murder in the middle of the park, but then Mertesacker gets called for a foul when he clearly won the ball. On the other hand, Sian Massey continued her ongoing contributions to the sport of football (after Andy Gray being fired due to his pig-headed sexist comments about her knowledge of the offside rule) by running a solid line.

Meanwhile, Coquelin's torrid evening continued as first N'Zogbia destroyed him with a back-heel move before sending in an awful cross, then he got booked for a bad challenge on the same man. Clearly, his French compatriot was enjoying life on that side of the park. Villa kept the pressure on, and another Albrighton cross was just about dealt with by Mertesacker.

In my notes, this is where I wrote "We need halftime."

Arsenal weren't completely out of it though, and the Gunners could have possibly killed the game off in the 32nd minute. A ball was volleyed into the path of RVP, whose little touch was enough to beat the onrushing Richard Dunne. Ramsey had time and space, but took it quickly and fired miles wide. He should have done far better with that one.

Still, it was better stuff from the Gunners, who had managed to hang onto the ball for long stretches after Villa's early dominance. Arteta was bossing play in the middle of the park, but Alan Hutton had Gervinho in his pocket and Frimpong looked like a 19-year old playing in his second-ever league match. The good news was that Coquelin settled down after his rough start and was passable other than the bad giveaway that led to Mertesacker having to take a yellow card to stop the rampaging run of N'Zogbia.

Before they could take the free though, Ireland hobbled off with a calf injury. Barry Bannan replaced him, and took the free kick himself. Luckily for us, it flashed just wide of the post.

I was hoping that Arsenal would settle down in the second half and come out with solid possession and poise, but instead Villa picked up where they left off. Ramsey faded badly after a decent first half, and his constant turnovers contributed to the Villa cause. Panic set into the defense, and sure enough Villa were level in the 54th minute.

A long ball out of the back was contested by Koscielny and Agbonlahor, with neither winning out. It came out to the left, and Vermaelen should have dealt with it. Instead, he hit a woefully under-hit header towards the middle, which Albrighton gleefully ran onto. Mertesacker should have held back and made the little Englishman beat him, but instead he clumsily charged out to try and win the ball. Unsurprisingly, Albrighton toe-poked it past him, darted into the penalty area, and calmly nutmegged the advancing Szczesny for the equalizer.

If the Gunners were underachieving before, it only got worse after the goal. The raucous traveling support, who earlier on emphatically out-sung the sullen home crowd, quieted immediately. The Villa fans now felt like singing, oddly enough, and their side responded. Ramsey responded as well, helpfully supplying the ball to anyone around him in a claret-and-blue shirt. I don't know if it was fatigue or what, but man alive he was abysmal.

Arsene responded with a sub in the 66th minute, but it wasn't the required act of mercy for Ramsey. Instead, Tomas Rosicky came on in place of Frimpong. It seemed odd at the time, but in fairness it came off beautifully. Tommy was all over the place in the center of the park, winning tackles and combining with Arteta to get Arsenal clicking again offensively.

Who saw that coming, eh? Also, who knew that we'd miss Song's dynamism this badly?

While Rosicky stabilized the side somewhat, Ramsey was still turning the ball over in dangerous areas and putting the team under pressure. In the 75th minute, with Arsenal again under the cosh thanks to a Ramsey giveaway, Albrighton skinned Gervinho down the left and sent in a fantastic cross. Szczesny had to alertly palm it away under the attention of Clark. Clearly, Villa were not going away.

Two minutes later, Moss had to make arguably the most contentious decision of the night. Personally, I thought van Persie was stumbling over his own feet as he was entering the penalty area, but Moss opted to book him for diving. I actually wrote in my notes at the time "RVP dives, gets booked", but upon seeing it again, Moss got this horribly wrong. There was some contact, but I don't think it was a penalty either.

Finally, with 10 minutes to go, Wenger made his move. The bad news was that Andrei Arshavin was again preferred to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and he came on for Gervinho. The great news was that Ramsey finally was withdrawn in favor of Yossi Benayoun.

As if by magic, Arsenal promptly transformed into a cohesive attacking unit...with an Arshavin-shaped appendix.

Benayoun and Arteta combined to spring RVP in the center, but his shot went miles over the bar. I won't say that it looked like a goal was coming, but at least there were signs of life. Well, until Arshavin was unable to trap a simple pass across, that is. That said, before I pile on to him too much, Arshavin's deflected shot did result in the corner that won the game.

From that corner, taken by RVP, Agbonlahor was caught ball-watching and lost his man completely. That man was Benayoun, who connected solidly with his header. Guzan had half come out and half stopped, so was far too close to the ball to have time to react. In it went, and Arsenal were out of jail.

Well, actually, there were still 3 minutes plus injury time. But, Arsenal didn't sit back, and good work from Benayoun freed Arteta for a shot, which sadly was right at Guzan. In the interim, the 4th official for some reason showed FOUR minutes of injury time. For what, I have no earthly idea.

Villa had one flash of hope after a bad Arshavin giveaway, but the excellent Koscielny cleared the danger, and that was that. There was still time for some hijinks though, as that oafish thug Hutton had words for Arteta after he had fouled the Spaniard. He got booked for his trouble, and looked fit to burst as RVP came over to sort him out with some verbals. Not only did this waste time that Villa couldn't spare, but he then got his second yellow nanoseconds later for a reckless challenge on TV5.

What a maroon.

That managed to kill off the remaining injury time, and Moss blew his whistle as Arsenal were taking a late corner. Somehow, some way, the Gunners take home three points from one of the most disjointed, awful performances of the season. In a way, it's poetic justice after coming back from Eastlands with nothing after perhaps their best and bravest one of the campaign.

So, 3 points out of my previously-mentioned minimum acceptable of 11 for this stretch of games, and that's with one of the harder ones down. Considering Fulham just got mauled 5-0 by a weakened United, maybe it's not so greedy to dream of getting all 15?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Vermaelen 6, Koscielny 9, Mertesacker 7, Coquelin 6, Gervinho 6 (Arshavin N/A), Arteta 8, Frimpong 6 (Rosicky 8), Ramsey 4 (Benayoun 8), Walcott 7, van Persie 7

Man of the Match: If I included opponents, it would have been Richard Dunne for a valiant rearguard performance in a losing effort. RVP's penalty was awesome, Benayoun was the super-sub and Arteta would have won it on any other day for his silky passing under pressure in the middle of the park. However, Laurent Koscielny is the MOTM today for almost single-handedly keeping Villa from overrunning us until that second goal was found.