Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal: Dire Stalemate

There will be sections of the support that will have a proper old go at the side today...and in one sense, I can't blame them. I'm hardly alone in wishing I had that two hours of my life back. On the other hand, this isn't my first time around with Arsenal - I remember these soul-destroying nil-nils from when the opposition were Wimbledon or Coventry City.

The fact of the matter is, these borefests will happen. Keep in mind that Chelsea had one earlier this season at Loftus Road, and so did Manchester City at Upton Park. Sometimes, the wind blows, the rain lashes down, and 11 cloggers fighting for their Premeirship lives neutralize a better side. 

Long time readers know that I date back to the days before the Arsenal were so readily available on American television. For several years, there was a single website that I knew of where I could get any dispatches from North London - have a gander at this one from October 1997 against these same opponents, and tell me you don't see the similarities.

That said, I think some of this was down to team selection. There was some rotation - Thomas Vermaelen, Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere were all rested - but Santi Cazorla looked knackered out there and we suffered for it. I also would have liked to have seen a start from Andrei Arshavin, though in retrospect the weather and the eventual need for our wide forwards to track back vindicates the boss there.

Given the demoralizing hammering that Villa suffered at the hands of Manchester City last week, the one thing they desperately needed was a pedestrian start to the match. That's exactly what they got, as Arsenal were out of sorts. The home side were the first to threaten, a long ball to Christian Benteke overhit just enough to allow Wojceich Szczesny to clean up.

The Pole had to be sharp again a few minutes later, when Andreas Weimann's audacious tight-angle shot had to be fisted away at his near post. Second later, Benteke had an effort flash inches wide.

As you may have gathered, the visitors had contributed nothing to the match so far.

Thankfully, the Arsenal defense were up to the task. Carl Jenkinson put himself about on both sides of the ball, with some nice tackles and a few good crosses into the box. As ever, Per Mertesacker was the very model of a proper center-half, intercepting where necessary and making a few superlative last-ditch sliding tackles. The German's blistering form once again made this more comfortable than it might have been otherwise.

Eventually, Arsenal started doing enough to control possession of the ball. Lukas Podolski in particular did good work down the left, aided by the return of the lively Kieran Gibbs. Villa deployed two disciplined banks of four, marshaled by the excellent Ron Vlaar. Any time they wavered, the slick pitch was there to play havoc with first touches.

A bit before halftime, there was a worrying moment when a routine loose ball catch by Szczesny saw his momentum take him outside the penalty area. Thankfully, referee Lee Mason (who was consistent and had an exceptional game) opted to not show him a card. The resulting free kick saw Weimann stray offside before turning the ball into the net. Hearts exited mouths, and the interval came with neither side looking like they could score in a women's prison with a fistful of pardons.

Still, the opening was theoretically there when Vlaar went off injured early in the second half. His replacement was Eric Lichaj, whose inability to win the right-back slot for the USMNT is all you need to know about him. Other than one Aaron Ramsey shot from distance though, that threat never materialized. Arsenal huffed and puffed, Olivier Giroud doing all he could as a target man. He never got much help from the supporting cast, though.

As usual, the boss took ages to make substitutions. Gervinho replaced Podolski after 70 minutes, but the rust from his injury layoff was evident. Ramsey had one more effort go wide, but the Villa substitute Brett Holman showed him how it's done from distance a while later. The BFG made his one mistake of the match, giving him far too much time and space to pick his shot. The Australian duly obliged, and fired a scorcher towards the top half of the net. Thankfully, it was not too far to either side, and Szczesny was able to claw it to safety. A fabulous save, that, and one that I highly doubt Vito Mannone would have made.

Belatedly, Arshavin came on for a 10-minute cameo in place of the largely anonymous Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He didn't have much time to make an impact, and his detractors will point to some poor touches. I choose to point to the outstanding cross he almost put onto the toe of Gervinho on the edge of the six. Only a fantastic intervention from Ciaran Clark prevented the Ivorian from getting a clean shot on the stranded Brad Guzan.

That was to be the last serious chance for either side, Villa long since having gone into bunker mode. That does remind me, though. The last substitution that Arsene Wenger made was shocking in that situation - Giroud coming off for Francis Coquelin. I would understand if Villa were feeling frisky and if they offered anything on the counter. By that point though, Arsenal were bossing the game and the chance for all three points had not yet entirely disappeared. I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again, but presently that substitution makes me want to break something. 

In the long run though, this result is not a disaster. Sure, we were playing a hopeless rabble, whose manager had a touchline ban, coming off the back of two excellent performances. In that context, this was infuriating. Over the course of the season though, we may look back at this as a point well won instead of two dispiritedly lost. Also, for that minority who prattles on about Szczesny not being a top-level keeper, have a look at that save on Holman a few times before you type those words again.

Now, what's done is done. There are two serious threats to the top-four places at the moment, and we've got dates with both of them upcoming. Everton is a challenge we know well by now, they're usually there or thereabouts at this point of the season. West Bromwich Albion is a bit different, Steve Clarke working wonders up there for the Baggies. Despite their differences in pedigree, both are crucial fixtures, and both will tell us a lot about where we're heading this season.

I swear, I've never seen a single campaign with so many season-defining games as this one has...and will continue to have, apparently.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 8, Jenkinson 7, Podolski 7 (Gervinho 6), Arteta 7, Cazorla 6, Ramsey 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Arshavin 7), Giroud 7 (Coquelin N/A)

Man of the Match:   Again, my now-customary informal poll of the Pig regulars came up with some good candidates. Szczesny's save was brilliant and arguably turned zero points into one. Podolski had a decent game, as did Giroud. Jenkinson clearly enjoyed being back in the side, and was lively as ever. However, Per Mertesacker gets the honors from me for a rock-solid defensive performance that kept our backline from ever getting too far out of shape.