It is a sage piece of wisdom in nearly every sport, but it bears repeating here as well: good teams win ugly games. Not that their main method of winning is to win ugly, of course, but good teams are able to come up with that extra bit of quality that propels them to victory. That game winning basket, that one last drive, that smart base-running play; successful teams find some way, any way, to will themselves to take a win even when things have not been going as they should. The match versus Aston Villa on Wednesday was a prime example of what happens when a favored side doesn't fully commit to a game and they run into a tough underdog. There are plenty of explanations for why Arsenal didn't come to play in their trip to Villa Park. There was a letdown after the close loss to Manchester City; this match was too quick of a turnaround from Sunday's encounter; the Gunners didn't take Aston Villa seriously. All of these could have been reasons for the Gunners' slowness physically as well as psychologically, but with no way of knowing what exactly kept the team down, let us just say that they did not have their best of matches. However, on their fourteenth corner kick of the match, Yossi Benayoun somehow found a way to get free and give Arsenal three points regardless of what had happened for the last 86 minutes.
That previous time in the match was an oddly lackluster near hour and a half for the Gunners. It wasn't a bad performance exactly and to characterize it as such wouldn't be fair as there were moments of quality to be seen. However it was decidedly not good either as there seemed to be no organization to the Arsenal attack and the midfield passing was rather sloppy, a rarity from the London club. The best word I can think of to describe what happened yesterday is "disjointed." Arsenal was there and was competing, but everything seemed to be just a bit off. It's difficult to describe as the numbers don't quite bear out the difference. In shots (on goal), Arsenal led Villa 11(5) to 9(3), while also dominating in possession 62% to 38%. In perhaps an even more telling stat, Arsenal won 15 corner kicks to 7 for Villa, high numbers on both sides but especially high for Arsenal. But while everything points to a dominating performance that was born out in the end by a late goal, that just wasn't the case.
It is at this point I realize that I could be accused of having perhaps a poetic, subjective view of how "my" team was playing in a match that all statistics point to a different story. It is possible that I'm assigning this performance an unnecessary star-crossed feel by saying how it all wasn't fitting together properly when in fact it was a strong performance by Arsenal, though perhaps not up to their normal standards, which resulted in beating an inferior team. But even though this notion is running through my head, I don't believe that I am changing the feeling of the game by finding this storyline where Arsenal weren't mentally there. For stretches of the game, Aston Villa were legitimately the better team. Before Robin Van Persie's converted penalty kick in the 17th minute, Arsenal looked uncomfortable in possession and had already relied on the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny once to keep the game level. After the PK, Arsenal exhibited more control, but it was in the manner of a team that was finding its feet and working its way back into the game rather than "ok boys, we've got the lead let's bury this thing now." It wasn't until early in the second half when I felt that Arsenal were finally getting control of the match, but then of course Thomas Vermaelen made one of the few bad passes you'll see him make in the year and gifted Marc Albrighton with the equalizer. After that, the build of control completely ceased and Aston Villa were dominating the match. Arsenal looked not defeated, but instead as if they were debating whether or not they wanted to continue, to struggle to regain control. It wasn't until the double-switch in the 81st with Andrei Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun coming on for Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey that Arsenal finally realized that they needed to step it up and win this game or they would be dropping points to an Aston Villa team that has looked anything but convincing this year, yet was giving Arsenal all kinds of trouble in this match. The goal from Benayoun was an escape, but it did the job of securing the full three points and getting an important road win.
Escape or not, however, it was the right result for a team that has proven they are capable of this kind of play this year. Arsenal should never have left it so late. They should not have let the tying goal affect them so negatively and they most definitely should not have waited a full half of the match to begin playing to their ability. Still, they got the result. It is a rare team, or perhaps an impossible dream, that brings the full 100% every single game. More likely, a team will have these types of games over a long season where something just isn't going right. We don't know for sure whether Arsenal is a good team to the extent that they will qualify for Champions League or maybe even challenge for the domestic title. But wins like this certainly give us hope.
-For Arsenal to reach their highest levels, they will need to improve upon their ability to convert corner kicks into goals. Since their loss earlier in the year to Tottenham (a time period that is generally connected with Arsenal's turnaround), Arsenal has only given up more corner kicks than taken once (3-2 vs Chelsea) and only three times on the year in sum. Four times they have earned 10 corner kicks or more with a whopping 129 in total in the Premiere League thus far. With all of these dominating stats, Yossi Benayoun's match winner on Wednesday was only the second goal off of a corner kick all season. Something tells me that that sub 2% conversion rate just isn't going to do it. For starters, every single ball into the box is an in-swinger. If the kick is to the left of goal (when facing it), Mikel Arteta hits it in with his right. If it's to the right, Robin Van Persie hits it in with his left. I understand that Van Persie has a wicked left foot but something has to change when faced with these results. Van Persie is a natural goal scorer who simply has to be in the box for a corner. He's good in the air and he has a knack for doing whatever it takes to put the ball in the net, so he will most likely pick up some garbage goals as well. If this is too drastic of a change, at least switch from in-swingers to out-swingers every now and then as the delivery is entirely too predictable at the moment. Changes must be made.
-I'm unsure whether to applaud or shake my head at Francis Coquelin for his performance in this match. On the positive side, he played the full 90 minutes for his team out of position, which can account for some of his mistakes. Save an obvious gaffe or two in the first half, he did look competent on defense and he has respectable speed. On the negative side though, one of his gaffes was getting badly beaten by Charles N'Zogbia and the other was a poor yellow card for tackling N'Zogbia out of frustration. He began to get forward more towards the end of the match, but that was due to the final push to get the go-ahead goal and he showed almost no threat before that. I like Coquelin. I've said before that I would like to see him get more time and if one way of doing that is to play him out of position while Arsenal is thin due to injury, I can understand that. But he would need to show improvement the next couple of times out or giving Ignasi Miquel the start at left back while moving Lauren Koscielny to the right seems preferable.
- I mentioned in my last post that I would prefer to see Yossi Benayoun coming off the bench than Andrei Arshavin, and this match has pretty much sealed it. It was not just the goal though; Benayoun played with pace and the desire to win the ball, which is exactly what is needed from him when you're trying to get a crucial goal. Granted Arshavin saw the field too due to the double switch and granted he did play slightly better than his past performances, but he still is not a game-changer. I would still much rather see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain than either of the veterans, but if you're going to play one then Benayoun is the one to pick. As Always, Go Gunners.