Arsene Wenger endured a nightmare start to the Premier League season as his Arsenal side crashed to a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at the Emirates. All had seemed to be going well when Olivier Giroud gave the home side a six-minute lead, but two penalties from Christian Benteke, the first converted on the rebound, turned the match in Villa’s favor. Laurent Koscielny was also sent off after receiving two yellow cards and when Antonio Luna added a third goal late on, a large section of supporters summed up the sense of frustration around the Emirates after another summer of no investment with loud chants toward Wenger of “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
While Arsenal will point to the controversial award of a second Villa penalty after the break, it would be wrong for that to distract from what was a deserved victory for Paul Lambert’s side. Following a near escape from relegation last campaign, Villa, on this evidence, certainly have reason to be optimistic about a better season this time around.
It had not started that way, though. Arsenal’s early strike owed much to the haplessness of Villa’s defending. After they struggled defensively last term, Lambert would have been hoping that his young side had eradicated the bulk of the errors from their game. But from the moment Ron Vlaar committed himself to a challenge with Tomas Rosciky near halfway, Villa were in trouble.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was quickly found in yards of space to move into with right-back Matthew Lowton also caught upfield and the England midfielder took the ball on before producing a near-post cross that allowed Giroud to escape his marker all too easily in the middle and finish with a stylish volley past Brad Guzan.
The uncertainty at the back continued with new left-back Luna looking particularly nervy. To their credit, Villa responded from their early troubles and continued to harry Arsenal at every opportunity. And midway through the opening half they got back on level terms as Gabriel Agbonlahor injected a burst of pace into their attack.
The forward sprinted through Arsenal’s midfield, through the legs of Koscielny and into the box before being taken down by the dive of Wojciech Szczesny as Agbonlahor just got to the ball ahead of the keeper. While the ball ran onto Andreas Weimann who shot into the side netting, the referee correctly pulled the ball back for a penalty with there being no advantage. Szczesny appeared to redeem himself with a low save from Benteke’s poor spot-kick, but the Belgian was first to react to the fortunate spin and head into the net.
The penchant for errors that hampered Villa’s play spread to the other end. Szczesny was lucky to escape after sprinting unnecessarily out of his box and producing an almost laughable looped clearance straight up in the air.
It had been a frenetic opening period, with almost an over eagerness at times that resulted in a plethora of fouls and an increasing tetchiness between the two sides. Still, the match became increasingly stretched after the break. In the blink of an eye Rosicky wasted a glorious chance as he fired high over the bar and then at the other end Fabian Delph was given space to fire a low shot from 20 yards that came back off the post.
Soon after, the match would turn decisively in the visitors’ favor. First came a controversial penalty decision as Agbonlahor’s pace again caused problems. This time the seemingly-rejuvenated former England international went down the right of the area before being taken down by a challenge from Koscielny. While the Arsenal defender got his studs to the ball, the referee likely viewed the Villa forward as still having possession before his legs were taken from beneath him.
Benteke stepped forward again and this time made no mistake with a low penalty into the corner. And things were about to get worse for Arsenal as Koscielny, having been booked after conceding the penalty, was shown a second yellow for a late, high challenge on Weimann.
Arsenal had chances to hit back, with Rosicky and substitute Santi Cazorla both denied by fine saves from Guzan. Yet Villa always looked like exploiting Arsenal’s numerical disadvantage and need to push forward on the counter attack. Sure enough, with five minutes left, the visitors put the result beyond doubt. Luna made up for his early shakiness to make it a debut to remember with a clinical finish after being played clear.
Arsenal now face a crucial first-leg of their Champions League playoff against Fenerbahce on Wednesday evening with Wenger surely having never been under so much pressure during his 17-year reign.