The costs of the French manager’s failure to strengthen his squad this summer were there for all to see as Aston Villa ensured the Gunners’ season started in the worst possible way
By Oliver Platt
The opening day of the Premier League season is a time for optimism and perhaps the Arsenal supporters at the Emirates Stadium allowed themselves to put the club’s failings in the transfer market to one side before kick-off against Aston Villa.
There was, after all, a starting XI on the field filled with talent; Jack Wilshere was fit to start and immediately set about linking up with England’s other great young starlet, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Less than six minutes in, the cautious optimism had been replaced by a real buzz. Olivier Giroud had completed the swiftest of moves upfield to give Arsenal the lead and the ‘You can’t buy class’ banner in the stands suddenly seemed a display of defiant confidence rather than hope.
Then everything came crashing down on Arsene Wenger’s team, and all the flaws that the one of the greatest coaches in the Premier League era has bafflingly failed to address were exposed. Gabriel Agbonlahor tore through a gaping hole in the Arsenal defence and nudged the ball right to draw a foul from the onrushing Wojciech Szczesny.
Szczesny saved Christian Benteke’s spot-kick but could not prevent the Belgian from nodding home the rebound. That was just the beginning. Villa sensed the nervousness setting in around the ground and ramped up the physicality of their approach. When Wilshere was tripped by Ron Vlaar, the midfielder let rip in the direction of referee Anthony Taylor – both players were booked but Wilshere’s reaction spoke volumes as to the direction Arsenal’s performance was headed in.
Mikel Arteta was injured but even he is not the no-nonsense defensive midfielder Arsenal need, and the lack of a ball-winner in the centre of the park was shown up time and time again. Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann took turns to drift into the space in front of the Gunners’ defence and Fabian Delph was afforded all the time in the world to fire a shot against the post from 20 yards after half-time.
The real mutiny began shortly after the hour mark had passed. It was aimed initially not in the direction of Wenger but at Taylor, who very harshly penalised Laurent Koscielny for a foul on Agbonlahor as, yet again, the Villa forward charged at the Arsenal defence virtually unchallenged. Benteke buried the penalty and minutes later Koscielny was dismissed for a second bookable offence.
By the time Antonio Luna had scored a third goal, Taylor was no longer the target of the abuse raining in from the stands. Wenger has survived periods of pressure before – indeed, they have become a regular occurrence in recent seasons – but this time the chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ demonstrated that there was no sharing of the blame.
This summer, the money has been there for Wenger to spend. His continued failure to do so does not just betray the paying supporters beginning to turn on him but also the players on the field. They will endure many more days like this one if they do not receive the help they so obviously require.