Rarely can a lap of honour have seemed more akin to one of apology. As Arsenal's players stumbled around the Emirates waving to a half-empty stadium, they will have known that a season that promised so much is almost certain to end in disappointment, with fourth place and a Champions League qualifier now likely.
If Manchester City beat Stoke and Bolton, Arsenal will have to qualify for Europe's premier competition, which on current standings means a possible draw against teams including Bayern Munich, Villarreal or Udinese.
Failing to make the Group Stages would be a disaster for a club that still hopes to keep Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, and coupled with a 6.5 per-cent price rise in season tickets it is a scenario Arsenal dare not think about.
Indeed, before this match there was a demonstration against the board, with several hundred fans from "The Black Scarf" movement making their feelings clear as they chanted: "Chequebook out, or sack the board," and "Choke on your caviar," as well as several other less polite numbers.
The cost of the cheapest season-ticket at Arsenal will be £951 next season, and woeful performances such as this – the latest in a run of three wins in 13 games since the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham in February – is hardly going to convince supporters to fork out such an astronomical sum.
The fact that the vocal protests continued during the game is hardly surprising, and one that Arsène Wenger could hardly avoid, as Robin van Persie's late goal came too late to cancel out two very fine efforts by Darren Bent.
"When people are not happy they can show it," said Wenger. "The fans want to win football games. When they don't win they are not happy and that is normal. The best way to keep them happy is to win games."
Yet Arsenal's woes should not detract from a fine performance by the visitors. Bent was ultimately the difference between the teams as two fine finishes demonstrated exactly what you get for £24m, but this was a win built on the twin forces of Richard Dunne and James Collins at the back, and the tigerish midfield pairing of Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker.
All too rarely have Villa showed what they are capable of this season, but caretaker manager Gary McAllister was rightly pleased here. "It was a great performance and result, there is very little I can fault," he said. "And Darren has been class since we signed him, what a signing."
Bent's predatory instinct was superb – he took Petrov's long ball on his chest before volleying home in one movement before latching on to Ashley Young's precise through-ball to fire low under Wojciech Szczesny.
Referee Michael Oliver should have awarded Arsenal a penalty when Aaron Ramsey was felled by Dunne, and the decision to chalk off Marouane Chamakh's header for a push on Kyle Walker was harsh, but Arsenal's response was poor. They pulled one back in the final minute when Van Persie prodded home, but this was a shocking performance to cap a woeful three months and an horrendous day.
Substitutes: Arsenal Chamakh (Squillaci, h-t), Bendtner (Arshavin, 62). Aston Villa Bradley (Petrov, 80), Heskey (Delph, 90).
Booked: Arsenal Bendtner. Aston Villa Dunne, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Young.
Man of the match Bent. Match rating 5/10. Possession: Arsenal 65% Aston Villa 35%. Attempts on target: Arsenal 15 Aston Villa 5. Referee M Oliver (Northumberland).
Attendance 60,023.Reuse content