Crisis just a calamity away for Arsenal, says Neil Humphreys
ASTON VILLA v ARSENAL
(Today, 10pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
All great sides suffer off-days. The odd humiliation is an inevitable speed bump on the road to silverware.
But the Borussia Dortmund debacle was something else. Arsenal were not just beaten in the Champions League; they were systemically ripped apart and exposed, like a fisherman gutting a carcass.
Dortmund revealed more than a soft underbelly. There was no underbelly. Arsene Wenger admitted after the European nightmare that the Gunners had toiled with no midfield.
They were sidestepped in the centre circle, brutally bypassed and ignored. It was a familiar warning from history.
Arsenal still lack leadership.
They are blessed with artists, but light on warriors.
Natural-born leaders like Patrick Vieira are obviously freakish exceptions, but Arsenal cannot even lay claim to manufactured leaders at the moment.
Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert was a prominent face in the crowd at the Westfalenstadion stadium. He must have felt like a bystander at an enemy's car crash.
All that was missing was Wenger dressed as a uniformed officer, waving his arms wildly in the air and shouting: "Move along. There's nothing to see here."
There really wasn't. Lambert had little to worry about.
Second in the table, undefeated Villa host the Gunners tonight with three wins and a draw in their plus column, along with a surprisingly dependable defence that now includes Aly Cissokho and, yes, Philippe Senderos. (Feel free to giggle but he kept out both Mario Balotelli and Philippe Coutinho at Anfield last week).
Villa have nothing to fear. Apprehension belongs to Arsenal. They left Dortmund feeling despondent. Defeat at Villa might see the introduction of the c-word.
A crisis is just one more calamity away.
Hysteria and hubris have always been uneasy bedfellows for Wenger's Arsenal. The Frenchman is usually days from the sack. Or he is the last coaching hero championing old-school principles. Sometimes he can be both in the same week.
The Gunners are certainly not in crisis after four Premier League games. But the manner of the Dortmund defeat struck at the core of longstanding failings.
Arsenal remain heavily reliant upon injury-prone midfielders, namely Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, who limped out of Germany with another knock.
And the club's aesthetic automatons are often infuriatingly flimsy against muscular opposition.
When lesser teams come calling, Arsenal's midfield glides and soars with the grace of a light aircraft floating on an airstream. But Dortmund cut through them like Hercules military transports tearing through quivering paper airplanes.
It wasn't a fair fight. It wasn't a fight at all.
Mikel Arteta demands improvement against Aston Villa tonight, but the skipper unfortunately typifies his side's inherent weaknesses.
Leaders remain stubbornly elusive. When the Gunners tiptoe into the intimidating, cavernous arenas of Westfalenstadion, Stamford Bridge or even Anfield, they visibly whither and shrink. Some vanish entirely.
A proud advocate of youth development, Wenger has long made men out of precocious boys.
But few go one step beyond. He struggles to turn men into midfield monsters; uncompromising beasts of burden who can carry games through inhospitable environment.
Arteta has been a loyal, committed Arsenal performer, but his holding role essentially leaves him manning a post with insufficient resources.
As Dortmund nearly demonstrated, Arteta has plenty of nimble-footed maestros around him, but not enough monsters.
Alexis Sanchez is still finding his feet, Wilshere and Ramsey's form can be mercurial and Mesut Oezil still finds himself out of position, out of patience and increasingly out of goodwill among the Arsenal faithful.
When the Gunners' attacking quartet lose possession - which happened far too often against Dortmund - Arteta immediately becomes the last man standing; the only obstacle between a rampant counter-attack and a weakened back four.
At Villa Park, Hector Bellerin's inexperience will be tested again at right back. The 19-year-old is likely to cover for the injured Mathieu Debuchy.
He will be targeted. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Tom Cleverley are poised to probe the weak spots highlighted by Dortmund.
In such circumstances, leaders come to the fore, those agents of chaos who revel in the midfield mayhem.
But the Gunners are still short of individuals who crave responsibility; men who thrive in adversity and inspire others through example.
Such leaders were conspicuous by their absence at Arsenal last season, forever AWOL against legitimate title challengers.
They were missing again against Dortmund.
If they fail to turn up at Villa Park tonight, expect the c-word to be thrown at Wenger.
Crisis talk might seem premature, but the Premier League table will say otherwise.
Aston Villa are the only Premier League team to have recorded three clean sheets this season, while Arsenal are one of three teams yet to keep a clean sheet (along with Sunderland and West Ham).