A highlight to everyone’s season was the opening game, beating Arsenal 3-1 away, a result that proved to be a wake-up call for Arsenal—after they went out and bought Mesut Ozil, they began to look like a team that could conceivably win the league. For us, though, it was merely the harbinger of a season that would be marked by highs (thrilling wins against Man City and Southampton) and lows (pretty much the last eight games). Not an anomaly, exactly, but an illustration of how hard Villa’s performances would be to predict.
Going to the Globe again yesterday, only the heartiest optimist would have expected a win. Villa started the day with four losses, a draw, and a win in their last six games, while Arsenal was in better form with three wins, two draws, and one loss. Notwithstanding the August result at the Emirates, Villa’s record against Arsenal in the Premier League is something like 3 wins, 6 draws, and 12 losses—let’s face it, they own us. And, worst of all, the game would be played at Villa Park, a once-proud fortress now derided by Premier League diving champion Ashley Young as an easy place to go and pick up some points.
Much as any of us would have wanted to dispute that, with Arsenal in 3rd place with 45 points, and Villa in 11th with 23, the most likely scenario involved Arsenal’s return to the top of the table.
All the same, no matter how bad it looks, a true fan puts on his colors and walks into the lion’s den—or, in this case, the Globe, an Arsenal bar when it’s not a Villa one, made all the more so by the proclivities of one of its owners, Gary Winters. Helping Simon hang the handsome new Chicago Villans flag, I felt as though I had passed a minor true-fan milestone of my own. (Even if my subpar work with a thumbtack meant that the flag had to be rehung by an Arsenal supporter partway through the first half. “We’ve got them working for us now,” quipped Simon, reassuring me that I was not yet off the flag-raising team.)
Villa are usually good for 10-15 minutes of sprightly play before they start falling back to the bunkers, but this time it looked as though they had mistaken the referee’s whistle for the bugle horn of retreat.
As the official Villa media Tweeted and Facebooked photos of Villa Park looking beautiful under the lights, and touted the qualities of its playing surface, the Villa faithful analyzed the starting lineup. What Jack Woodward was calling a 3-5-2, everyone else was calling a 5-3-2, and, as the game got under way, it seemed that Paul Lambert was hoping not to lose his job by not losing the game. Villa are usually good for 10-15 minutes of sprightly play before they start falling back to the bunkers, but this time it looked as though they had mistaken the referee’s whistle for the bugle horn of retreat. Would the entire game be played in our 18-yard box? How many goals would Arsenal score before it was all over? These were the two questions paramount in my mind.
And then Nathan Baker took a ball to the head and crumpled to the turf. Simon and I exchanged a few quips about the defender’s seemingly magnetized noggin, regretting them when we learned that, far from his usual cranial misadventure, this time he had entirely lost consciousness. Frighteningly, he didn’t regain it until he reached the locker room. It’s worrying for him—how many blows to the head can he take?—and worrying for Villa, as, say what you like about Baker’s finesse, he provides some steel on a fairly fragile back line.
With Lambert substituting Bacuna and changing tactics to a 4-4-2, it’s hard to blame the team too much for being wrongfooted. Whatever plan they’d had had been changed without warning, and Arsenal were quick to capitalize. At 34 minutes, Lowton was at fault for a Jack Wilshere goal. It seemed inevitable, and frankly, I wasn’t too bothered. Villa have fought back from a goal down this season, and maybe conceding one would break them out of their shell.
When Giroud scored 59 seconds later through Lowton’s legs, I was fairly bothered. Would this game turn into an embarrassing blowout?
But something happened. Villa held on until the break. Weimann came on, Benteke came to life, and Lowton atoned for at least one of his errors with a brilliant cross that Benteke met with a powerful diving header to claw back a goal. Now it was Arsenal’s turn to look ordinary as Villa began spending more and more time in the visitors’ half, launching attack after attack until even the doubters—I can only include myself among them—began to believe that, while victory still lay out of reach, a deserved point would be ours.
It didn’t happen. Even with 14 minutes of total added time, we fell short. We lost. But we earned a little pride, perhaps. After all, we may have split the points with Arsenal this season, but we won the home-and-away series 4-3. If this were a cup tie, Arsenal would be going home and Villa would be moving on.
Better luck next year, Gooners!
Reasons for Pessimism
The first half. We may have made a game out of it, but we still got nothing.
Next game: away to Liverpool.
Reasons for Optimism
Benteke scored! Benteke scored! Ending a 12-game goal drought, no less. And, as you’ll recall, the Beast was at his best in the second half last year, so hopefully this will get his confidence flowing.
The second half.
Baker’s injury, despite his loss of consciousness, has been reported as a mild concussion. After seeing season-ending injuries to Okore and Kozak, hopefully we’ll have him back soon.
Reasons for Throwing Up Your Hands
Matt Lowton. Both a defensive liability and an offensive spark yesterday.