Arsenal came back with a huge away win against Eintracht Frankfurt in their first Europa League match of the season. It was time for Arsenal to face lowly ranked Aston Villa in Premier League. It was a battle of two teams who faced most number of shots vs. who ranks fourth in this list for the current season and the match didn’t disappoint.
In this tactical analysis, we intend to identify the reason behind Arsenal’s poor defensive show and Aston Villa’s misery.
Arsenal’s midweek Europe fixture meant numerous changes in their line-up. Unai Emery went with the same formation, 4-2-3-1 and almost the same line up as he went against Watford in their last Premier League match. Emery restored Bernd Leno in goal, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles alongside David Luiz and Sead Kolašinac in defence. Mattéo Guendouzi sat alongside Granit Xhaka in midfield. Bukayo Saka after impressing Emery in the Europa League made his Premier League debut in left-wing replacing Mesut Özil. Nicolas Pépé, Dani Cabellos, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang completed the Arsenal line-up.
Dean Smith just made one change to his line-up. He started with 4-1-4-1, though most of the game Aston Villa played with 4-3-3. Trézéguet was the only change, who replaced Jota from the Monday night game against West Ham United.
Tactical Positioning of Aston Villa
Aston Villa sat compact with three midfielders staying narrow in midfield and the wingers staying wide. Arsenal have been vulnerable when they play out from the back and this is one place Aston Villa failed to capitalise. They did not press the Arsenal defence with the three frontline players. They sat back, mostly Wesley and Anwar El Ghazi doing half-hearted press throughout the game.
Arsenal’s full-backs are known for overlapping. Even if they don’t overlap they move much higher when they attack and Pépé acts as a second forward alongside Aubameyang. Aston Villa lined up pretty well defensively. They kept their back four narrow neutralising the effect of Pépé. In this scenario it is seen Aubameyang, Pépé and Saka are in the box. Aston Villa defenders maintain a narrow shape and create a 4 vs. 3 situation to their advantage. Ghazi falls back to mark Maitland-Niles in the wings, thus neutralising the attack.
In this image, it is seen Xhaka fills up the pocket left behind by Maitland-Niles (who was red-carded). When Xhaka has the ball in the wide area, Ghazi marks him and Jack Grealish moves right to help Ghazi and create a 2 vs. 1 situation as well as keep pressure on Pépé if he receives the ball, and Villa full-back Neil Taylor moves up to mark Pépé, and block the immediate forward pass.
When Xhaka passes sideways to Guendouzi, Wesley and Grealish now creates a 2 vs. 1 situation.
When the ball is moved left, we again observe John McGinn moves up and creates a 2 vs. 1 situation and Marvelous Nakamba marking Saka. Luiz unable to pass to his immediate forward teammate, Saka, tries a ball to Aubameyang which he eventually loses.
Arsenal’s defensive woes
Arsenal may not have shown much weakness offensively, thanks to Aubameyang, but they are in total shambles defensively. They received 16.14 shots per game this season which is the highest in the league. The majority of it is due to the fact they are incompetent in preventing counters. They move too many bodies forward and leave the defence wide open.
Arsenal face 4.14 counter-attacks per game and, 48.3% counter-attacks leads to shots. Only Watford, who have let 18 goals back of their net, face more counter-attacks per game than Arsenal. It’s a stat which Arsenal surely won’t be proud of.
Xhaka was terrific in the game against Frankfurt but this doesn’t really happen regularly. He is often caught in the opposition half giving opponent enough time and space to meander through the Arsenal midfield. In this scenario, Pépé looses the ball in the opposition final third. McGinn receives the ball and slides a pass to Grealish who makes a progressive run in the opposition half. A simple pass by McGinn bifurcates the midfield wide open and creates a 5 vs. 5 situation, which Villa failed to capitalise. The ineffectiveness in dealing with counter-attacks certainly questions Emery’s tactics.
Arsenal’s other problem is the midfielders, as well as the defenders, often losing concentration. The first goal Arsenal conceded was a mistake by the star of the match, Guendouzi, and Kolašinac. A cross by Ghazi finished sublimely by McGinn with a subtle touch.
Here is the sequence of play. McGinn spreads the ball wide to Taylor. He plays a wide pass to Ghazi. McGinn is seen lingering around in the final third with no one marking him. Sokratis asks Luiz to mark Wesley which he obliges. Guendouzi focusses on the ball, completely ignoring the fact that a Villa player may lurk in.
McGinn lurks in which Guendouzi overlooked entirely. Kolašinac even though he could see McGinn sneak in, did not react. He was too worried about the wide winger in the box.
If Arsenal have countless problems, Villa are not short of problems of their own. As mentioned earlier Villa remains compact in the midfield and the wingers remain wide and help in defence. Villa maintain the shape well but they often get into a situation which they are not able to avoid.
Villa defenders maintain a narrow defensive shape to have more bodies in the box and dominate the area. Ghazi has been tasked with marking Maitland-Niles, which he does except for one instance. This happens once or twice in every match for Villa. Even in the last match there was a huge rift between Mings and Ghazi, due to the later leaving the opponent full-back to enter the box and create a dangerous situation, even though it wasn’t entirely his mistake.
Another problem Villa faces is Grealish’s miss-passes. He often makes wrong passes in the opposition half as well as his own. Due to that many attacks are wasted and it also creates problematic situations for his own team. He also holds the ball for long in search of a right pass in his own box or opponent’s final third rather than clearing away.
Limiting of Luiz’s prowess
Emery seems to have forgotten the enormous passing skills David Luiz possesses. He is the best defender in terms of passing skills by miles in this Arsenal squad. He is underutilising Luiz’s long balls and deep passes, focussing just on playing from the back. Even Maurizio Sarri believes in building his attack from back but he always had a player like Kalidou Koulibaly or David Luiz in his squad, who can break opponents defence with his smart and key passes. David Luiz showed a glimpse of his skills against Aston Villa when he tried a few times playing long balls. He made 0.14 key passes and 0.50 smart passes under Sarri compared to none in this season. Even the long balls and deep completed passes graph shows he is much better than the rest of the players in the squad.
It’s time Emery gets his act straight and gets to the core of Arsenal’s problems, the majority of which is Arsenal’s defending. It’s evident how Arsenal struggles against counter-attacks even to the naked eye. When a team fights for a Champions League spot receives 16.14 shots per game, it’s disastrous. Arsenal’s analysis department should scratch their heads and find a better solution to their attacking play and not expose their defence to such extent. Even his idea of playing out from the back is not ticking. He doesn’t have the sort of players who is confident of playing out from the back. He should mix up during the course of the game and try to utilise Aubameyang’s pace as much as possible.
David Luiz is a type of defender who makes errors. His defending is not always great. But one thing David Luiz possesses is his passing skill. Emery has not been able to bring out the best from Luiz as well as many other players. The season is long and Emery has to find out a solution immediately to be in contention for the Champions League spot.
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