Signed, sealed, delivered: Arsenal gift-wrap another win for opposition

In the aftermath of the Wolves debacle, Hector Bellerin pleaded with his Arsenal colleagues to cut out the costly mistakes.

‘Teams aren’t beating us, we’re beating ourselves,’ bemoaned the Spaniard.

A pity then, that not a word of Hector’s warning was heeded as Arsenal served up a win for Aston Villa on Saturday, capping a miserable week for Mikel Arteta’s men.

Scarcely a minute had passed in the match when Cedric’s woefully underhit pass was seized upon on the edge of the Arsenal box, with a simple ball squared for Ollie Watkins to shank home from eight yards. Of course, the ball had to take a meaty deflection off Rob Holding and around the diving Mat Ryan on its way too. After all, we wouldn’t want a shade of luck to come Arsenal’s way, would we?

It was an absolute gift for Dean Smith’s side and they didn’t even have to work for it. They would doubtless have hoped to force Arsenal into giving up just such an opportunity over the course of the match but, just 70 seconds in, that would have been beyond their wildest dreams.

From there, the dye was cast. Villa were able to play exactly the sort of game they wanted, sitting deep, funneling the ball wide, playing on the break. They made lift difficult for Arsenal with their constant fouls, deep block, and massed ranks and, as they have shown over and again this season, the Gunners were unable to break it down.

Add into that mix the continual and baffling absence of any form of refereeing consistency and you had the recipe for guaranteed frustration. It’s rare I’ve felt a game was beyond hope but I was struck by just how sure I was by the 70th minute that we wouldn’t be taking anything from this one.

Should Konsa have seen a red card for his last-man challenge on Saka? Probably not but if it was good enough for David Luiz, why not anybody else? Should Alex Lacazette have had a penalty after being hauled to the ground by Emi Martinez? Yes, absolutely, but VAR was, apparently, happy with the challenge.

But all this is to distract from our own shortcomings. We had plenty of time to find a way back into this match but we simply couldn’t. Martinez, as fate had no doubt already decided, saved anything that came his way, while other good chances were spurned. Martin Odegaard will doubtless be tearing his hair out at blasting over the bar from eight yards with the goal at his mercy.

Our fate was all but sealed when Thomas Partey, again down through injury, was substituted for Willian, a man who, at this point, appears beyond redemption. I have tried my hardest to support the Brazilian and stayed quiet when others have raged but the reshuffle enacted by Arteta in order to accommodate a man so woefully out of form stifled our attacking impetus as did Willian himself.

For a winger, he is so spectacularly averse to running down the wing that I wonder what instructions he is being given. Seemingly terrified of attempting to beat a man, he almost always prefer to turn back towards his own goal and recycle to Gabriel or Xhaka. It is so negative as to be counter-productive to our cause at this point.

In the build-up to this game, I wrote that Arsenal needed to go up a few gears and enact a little revenge on a Villa side that had humbled them back in November, and I was hopeful that they could do that. Given our improvements as a team in the last two months, there was no reason we couldn’t.

Old habits die hard, however, and admirable though our efforts were and narrow though the defeat was, we once again handed victory to an opponent we really should have been looking to beat. Until those mistakes are cut out, this will continue to happen.

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