Defeat by Arsenal underlines bleak times for manager Paul Lambert who must find a solution to his side’s atrocious home form
Villa’s dreadful home record is threatening to condemn them to another grim relegation scrap and this was another uncomfortable, painful experience that leaves Lambert facing a bleak winter.
How times have changed since the opening day of the season. In the meeting at the Emirates Stadium in August, Villa were electrifying with Christian Benteke, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Fabian Delph producing performances that hinted at a bright future.
After an excellent finish to last season enabled them to escape relegation without the need for nailbiting, that 3-1 victory at Arsenal only suggested that the progress would continue. That early optimism has been shattered.
It has proved another tortuous campaign for Lambert, reaching its lowest ebb when League One side Sheffield United completed a comfortable path into the FA Cup fourth round 11 days ago. Lambert’s comments about the competition proving a hindrance to the main objective of survival may have been blown out of proportion but could not have come at a worse time.
Supporters are running out of patience and booing at the end of each half at Villa Park has become the soundtrack to Lambert’s season. The slack he was afforded last season, by virtue of not being Alex McLeish, is rapidly eroding.
Villa’s struggles have been epitomised by Benteke, who had gone almost 15 hours without scoring before his diving header in the 76th minute finally galvanised the home team. Before that he looked nothing like the forward Villa were quoting figures of £25 million to interested clubs in the summer.
Last season, and at the start of this one, he was powerful, direct and confident but on present form he looks incapable of ending that drought any time soon. His battle with Romelu Lukaku for the role of Belgium’s first-choice forward at the World Cup finals has not appeared a fair fight for months.
Is it a lack of service? Is he still struggling with the hip and knee injuries from this season? Is he, dare we say it, growing disillusioned again, six months after handing in a transfer request? It is a dilemma that needs to be resolved as Villa’s season depends on him emerging from his malaise, yet this goal will hopefully help his confidence.
Lambert had challenged his players to record an unlikely double over Arsène Wenger yet it never looked a possibility. For all Villa’s weaknesses, they have certainly been combative.
No other Premier League team have accrued more yellow cards this season and the game was 74 seconds old when Karim El Ahmadi became the 48th player booked after a poor challenge on Jack Wilshere.
Villa were allowing Arsenal far too much time in the wide open spaces of their own back yard. Arsenal probed and pondered, while Villa chased shadows.
Nathan Baker returned to the team but was taken off on a stretcher after 21 minutes with mild concussion, requiring oxygen and a neck brace, after feeling the full force of Serge Gnabry’s shot in his face.
The home team were later disorientated, and taken apart, in 60 seconds as Arsenal scored twice. The speed of Arsenal’s attacking was too much to handle, as Nacho Monreal’s pass found Wilshere advancing into the area and the England midfielder’s finish was clinical.
Villa’s defenders went missing barely a minute later, with Delph particularly culpable, allowing Olivier Giroud to increase Arsenal’s lead and ensure another chastening evening on home turf for Lambert.
“Are you Tottenham in disguise?” crowed the travelling supporters, with one wag behind the press box shouting back “I wish we were”.
The second half was a marginal improvement, with Benteke finally ending his frustration, but Arsenal were chomping on cigars long before the final whistle. Five Premier League wins in nearly 13 months is relegation form – and Lambert sorely needs to find a solution.