Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2: England woe stressed by Wenger's fluent foreigners
After the "Special One", who is teasing the Football Association as a cat would a mouse, perhaps with similar intent, most English supporters would choose Martin O'Neill or Arsène Wenger as the next England manager.
The latter emerged victorious after a wonderful match between their respective teams at Villa Park on Saturday, during which Arsenal displayed both their sublime football, and resilient defence. Yet the surprising conclusion is that O'Neill would be more suited to national colours.
The problem with hiring Wenger was neatly encapsulated in the two chants which echoed from the away support as his team passed their way around a bewildered Villa in the first half: "You need more foreigners", and, "Have you ever seen England play like this?" Arsenal play football of a fluidity and style rarely, if ever, seen in the English game. There is, this season, a nod to local traditions when an occasional long ball is sent to Emmanuel Adebayor's brow, but generally Arsenal play pass-and-move on the ground.
Players happily receive the ball in tight areas, passes are short, free-kicks are played five yards rather than humped into the mixer. It takes hours of intensive work on the training ground to play football like this. Wenger has had 11 years to inculcate his values, his philosophy of playing, into Arsenal, from the youth system upwards.
An England manager does not have that time. Once a month he gets a couple of training sessions and a match. The rest of his time his players are at their clubs, being drilled in a variety of playing styles.
Wenger can also bring in players from around the world, and does. The question has to be asked, if Wenger cannot find one English player good enough to start for Arsenal, is it possible to select a squad of English footballers capable of playing this way?
Where is the English Alexander Hleb, who dictated the game before being chopped down by John Carew? He comes from Belarus, a country which has never qualified for a major tournament. When asked, O'Neill largely avoided the question, except to argue that Manchester United, with several English players, had played just as well against them. But Gareth Barry echoed so many opponents when he said: "We were taught a footballing lesson in the first half.
"They showed us how to play the game. There is not a team in the country who can touch Arsenal on that style of football." That probably includes the national team, whoever the manager is. O'Neill's Villa, by contrast, play in a style which is recognisably domestic.
It is not long ball, but they do operate with wingers and a target man, they get the ball forward, they press in midfield. The service to Carew, though, was far more sophisticated and joined-up than that Peter Crouch received – aside from David Beckham's cross for his goal – against Croatia.
International management is very different to club football. It involves organising a restricted group of players for one-off matches. Compromises are required. A personal view is that Sven Goran Eriksson intended to play more expansive football but settled for what he believed the players were capable of.
On Saturday, O'Neill had to reorganise several times. Villa took the lead after 14 minutes, marginally against the run of play. Mathieu Flamini's pass was intercepted, Ashley Young released Carew down the line and his cross, after deflecting off Kolo Touré's legs and William Gallas's scalp, was steered in by Craig Gardner. Villa were coming off the back of four wins, the Holte End was in full voice.
This represented a real test of Wenger's young side but they responded impressively, pushing Villa back. Midway through the half Lassana Diarra drove forward, Emmanuel Eboué and Adebayor combined neatly on the flank, and Flamini, arriving late, drilled in the cross. Arsenal were rampant.
When Gallas went off for treatment they simply kept the ball to themselves until he returned. Soon enough, Adebayor put them ahead, rising between Zat Knight and Olof Mellberg to head in Bacary Sagna's cross.
By then Stiliyan Petrov had pulled up lame. With Villa getting possession only when their opponents ventured a shot, O'Neill reshuffled to go 4-4-1-1, bringing Gabriel Agbonlahor back and stiffening the midfield. "We had to regroup and get to half-time," he said. They did, and after the break took the match to Arsenal.
Agbonlahor returned to the front and with Arsenal stretched, Carew headed against the bar. O'Neill, dancing on the touchline with no sign of a coat or brolly as the heavens opened, next introduced Patrick Berger, going to three at the back. But while Villa dominated possession clear chances were elusive.
Following Hleb's injury Wenger appeared to settle for 2-1 bringing on Gilberto and moving to 4-1-4-1. With his defence impeccable, Villa were reduced to shooting from range.
"Carew was a handful," said Wenger. "They were very direct and in the second half we were really tested. In the first half we were amazing. In the second we were confronted with a very physical game and we passed the test."
Neither Hleb nor Cesc Fabregas – "he is a world-class player and we will be even better with him," said Wenger – will be fit for Wednesday's match at St James' Park, but on this showing Arsenal will still heap misery on Sam Allardyce.
The only sour note was Sagna and Flamini waving imaginary cards as they successfully sought bookings for opponents. Chris Foy should have cautioned them both.
Goals: Gardner (14) 1-0; Flamini (23) 1-1; Adebayor (36) 1-2.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Knight, Laursen, Bouma (Berger, 76); Gardner, Petrov (Maloney, 32), Barry, Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Harewood, Davies.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué, Diarra, Flamini, Rosicky (Silva, 74); Hleb (Walcott, 60); Adebayor (Bendtner, 90). Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Senderos.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Aston Villa Bouma, Carew, Young; Arsenal Adebayor, Gallas.
Man of the match: Hleb