After a summer in which Arsenal failed to recruit anyone other than a young French striker on a free transfer - he stayed on the substitutes’ bench throughout - this was not even the same old, same old. It was worse than that. Arsene Wenger’s side were beaten by Aston Villa for only the third time in 30 meetings and many of their supporters in a 60,000 crowd decided that the fault, in a close contest between Wenger and the referee Anthony Taylor was just about equally divided.
In his programme notes Wenger wrote: “We continue to be active in the transfer market,” which is one way of putting it. There is, however, activity and activity and for the faithful there has been nothing like enough of it.
They booed the manager and then Taylor, who awarded Villa two penalties and sent off Laurent Koscielny, leaving Arsenal to play the last quarter of the game with ten men. At full strength they might have been expected to force a draw, but left short at the back they were more vulnerable than ever to Villa’s historic strength at counter-attacking. Time after alarming time Arsenal lost the ball and found Gabriel Agbonlahor sprinting at them in threatening fashion.
That led to all three goals, which arrived after the home side had taken the lead inside six minutes, when all seemed briefly well with the north London world. Benteke scored twice, confirming that his signature on a new contract was the most important one Villa obtained this summer.
Hawk-eye had been used, a little unnecessarily, when Fabian Delph’s shot came back off the inside of a post in yet another Villa break; it would have been more useful for the referee to have had the assistance in determining whether Koscielny took more of the ball than the man when he brought down Agbonlahor.
Wenger made no secret of his annoyance with the officials, especially over the crucial second penalty, but admitted: "Despite that we could have won. There were a lot of positives in the game and we have to focus on that and forget the referee."
There were negatives too, however, in injuries ahead of Wednesday's tricky Champions' League qualifying tie away to Fenerbahce; Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere all took knocks as well as the three players who had to be substituted.
For Villa's Paul Lambert, facing Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to start the season, there were naturally very different emotions and particular praise for the "unplayable" Agbonlahor. from what he thought . "
Yet the new season began in such promising fashion, starting with Jack Wilshere’s clever turn in Arsenal’s left-back position, from which Tomas Rosicky sent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the left. Given onside with the full-back Matt Lowton nowhere to be seen, the England winger found Olivier Giroud equally unmarked at the near post for a tap-in.
Villa had to make an early change when Nathan Baker was replaced by Ciaran Clark after taking a heavy knock and they had barely threatened when an equaliser suddenly materialised. Clark finally did what Lambert was urging from the touchline wanted and played the ball down the left, from where it was quickly turned inside to Agbonlahor. Allowed to use his pace and strength without serious challenge, he sped to within ten yards of goal and then understandably went over as Wojciech Szczesny rushed out at him. The referee allowed play to go long enough for Andreas Weimann to shoot into the side-netting, then gave the penalty. Szczesny parried Benteke’s casual kick into the air, only for the striker to head the rebound past him.
Even before half time, with Villa level and Arsenal struggling to find a way through them, two dissenters in the lower section of the main stand were holding up home-made banners reading “spend, spend, spend.” the manager meanwhile was forced into a substitution, Oxlade-Chamberlain, like Kieran Gibbs, havin collected an injury, which meant an appearance for Santi Cazorla, who had not started after arriving back late from Spain’s international in Ecuador. For all the Spaniard’s talent, it meant Arsenal lost their width down the left, to where the right-footed Bacary Sagna had moved across after Gibbs’s departure.
Rosicky wasted an excellent chance after a one-two with Giroud, but the story of the second half was Villa’s swift breaks from deep. Delph hit the post, then Agbonlahor on another sprint when he might have been expected to feed Benteke went on himself. Koscielny appeared to have nicked the ball first but a penalty was given and Benteke this time scored more convincingly.
Koscielny was booked for the foul and only five minutes later he baulked Weimann and had to walk for a second yellow card. Still Arsenal had some hope, Rosicky being thwarted by Guzan after a fine individual dribble and the goalkeeper somehow turning Cazorla’s shot onto the bar.
But the defence could no longer cope. Benteke, played clean through, should have had his hat-trick, pulling the shot across goal and then from an Arsenal corner Weimann found Antonio Luna, the one new Villa signing Villa included, running from own half and shooting in off a post.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna (Podolski, 90), Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs (Jenkinson, 28); Ramsey, Wilshere; Walcott, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Cazorla, 45); Giroud.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker (Clark, 17), Luna; El Ahmadi, Delph; Weimann (Bacuna, 88), Westwood, Agbonlahor; Benteke.
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