After a hard earned, but incredibly successful week for Arsenal, they were looking to keep their momentum rolling against a struggling Aston Villa side. While it was assumed that Arteta would look to a heavily rotated side, the prospect of playing a game that would see Arsenal in possession of the ball to dictate play and provide the club with an opportunity to qualify for the Europa league on the final day was an enticing one.
Instead of pushing on and gutting out another good, away performance, Arsenal fell back into their old away form as a whole. From complete team displays last week to a complete team in disarray, Arsenal looked toothless in the attack as they struggled to get out of second gear.
Even as Arteta looked to his bench, abandoned the strict 3-4-3 formation, and ended the game with Aubameyang, Nkethiah, Lacazette, Dani Ceballos, Joe Willock, Granit Xhaka and Nicolas Pepe in the attack – Arsenal failed to register a single shot on goal despite dominating possession with nearly 70%. It’s a startling and worrisome stat line to have go against you and one that is likely to keep Arteta up at night.
And with it all, gone are the chances of topping Tottenham, gone are Arsenal’s hopes of qualifying for the Europa League through the Premier League, and they end not with a fight, but a whimper.
True to the belief that I set forth in my prematch preview, Arteta did select a heavily rotated starting eleven.
Arsenal: Martinez, Holding, Luiz, Kolasinac, Cedric, Torreira, Ceballos, Saka, Lacazette, Aubameyang, Nketiah
It saw six changes including Rob Holding, Kolasinac, Cedric Soares, Lucas Torreira, Bukayo Saka, and Eddie Nketiah enter the side. It’s a lot of changes to be forced to make for a team coming off the back of two wins over the top two teams in the Premier League – Liverpool and Manchester City. However, the extent of that reasoning only allows Arsenal so much leash in justifying this result.
That’s because Arsenal didn’t play bad in a manner that left supporters understanding, “well that is simply the extent of those player’s technical abilities.” No, Arsenal played a manner that left you wondering if they have ever played together – ever. Missed passes in the final third, unmarked attackers in the defensive third, redundant and pointless possession, toothless attacking prowess, and a lack of dare or flair.
In the first half, aside from a few fouls on Lucas Torreira that left you wondering if he is yet up to speed after his injury, there were only two real notable occasions – the Arsenal plane and AstonVilla’s goal. Yes you read that right, “the Arsenal plane”.
About 10-15 minutes into the game, no viewer could resist noting or escape the clear humming coming through their television. I, myself, jokingly wondered if Aston Villa has grabbed their crowd soundbites from a game where there was an airplane overhead. The humming was about as irritating as it gets for fans, but I suppose that was a bit of the purpose. Well, that and the trailing banner sporting the message, “Back Arteta, Kroenkes Out”. There had been some prior knowledge of the situation before the game, as word went around that a plan like this was in the works, but it hardly feels like all that new of a message. Maybe I will give a few of my thoughts on it in an article a little later seeing as Arteta had a few words about it.
The second and more important occurrence – Aston Villa’s goal. If you were a gambling man you would have put your money on Arsenal conceding from a set piece or a corner. At least, a smart man would, considering Arsenal have now conceded 46% of their goals this year off set pieces. Today’s was nearly as bad as it gets.
Dani Ceballos conceded an easy corner on a play he should have done better, Arsenal lined up in their usual zonal marking, and no one managed to keep and eye on a completely unmarked Trezeguet. The ball was whipped in, it was flicked on by Tyrone Mings and late trailer Trezeguet smashed it into the net before Emi could even get across his line. To Trezeguet’s credit, it was a smashing finish on the volley, but for Arsenal, the matter gets even worse.
Before the corner was taken, replays showed Aubameyang clearly having a laugh with Tyrone Mings who would use the split second of distraction to get away from his mark and supply the assist. Call me harsh, but a moment like that is nearing criminal for a leader and star to commit. I know Aubameyang is a light, jovial player, but shut it off for the 90 minutes, stay switched on, and have a laugh with him after if you really must. To add insult to injury, a person might criticize Soares for not putting forward a better effort to throw himself in front of the shot.
Many Arsenal supporters will have gone into the half hoping Arteta would supply one of his team talks that’s more of a verbal kick up the arse, seeing as there was a sizable amount riding on the game. But the second half proved to be 45 minutes of mostly the same. Lots of possession, side to side and backward passing, and no opportunity or willingness to take a risk and get vertical with passes.
There were two opportunities in the second half to turn things around, but Arsenal wouldn’t capitalize on either. In the 63rd minute, Aubameyang would finally find open space to attack, but fall short on delivering the final, slotted ball into the middle. It was the type of moment that left you head in hands almost knowing how the rest of the day was likely to go.
If you were convinced that Aubameyang’s wasted, golden opportunity was a sign, you were likely proved right when Eddie Nketiah went up to win a header in the box and steered it across frame, off the inside of the post, and out. The type of shot that goes in 9/10 times, but tonight was the 10th.
Arsenal fall 1-0 and to make matters worse, I will now offer you a few of my thoughts on it all.
It is a topic that has come up so routinely throughout the year that it has to leave a person wondering if it is even being addressed. Arsenal seem to find more and more creative ways to concede from set pieces than they find to create from them.
Arsenal lined up their defense and it was clear that not every player nor space was accounted for. There was no one keeping tabs on the top of the box, only Soares managing the back post, and all the rest are straddling the 6 yard box and making their run toward the front post. A simple flick on to the back and Arsenal are completely undone.
With 46% of their goals being conceded from set pieces, you have to wonder how this issue is not being addressed. We talk a lot about the tactical mind of Arteta and the promising signs we see from him, yet are left to wonder if why he is not capable of scrapping the plan, scrapping the defensive scheme, and creating a method to cut that percentage down. Yes there is an element of height that Arsenal lack, but yesterday we saw a goal where the Arsenal defense was in complete disarray and it added a tally to a stat that needs addressing in the offseason. Protect the defense as much as you want when it is in the run of play, but reducing these concessions feels like an easier, low hanging fruit that would bear results.
2. Eddie and Lacazette don’t work
One of the very first things that peoeple noticed when the lineup was announced, after the multiple changes, was who was tasked with leading the line. Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Eddie Nketiah? On paper, this offered Arsenal the ability to get on the end of attacking balls and convert with a high level of efficiency. After all, both Aubameyang and Nketiah have shown a good amount of attacking efficiency in the final third and Lacazette has been on an impressive run of form.
Well, as with many things in sports, what makes sense on paper, does not necessarily mean it will translate into play. Eddie struggled to run at defenders and was dispossessed multiple times, he didn’t offer the ability to make something happen for himself or others-something we have seen expected from Nelson and Pepe in their attempts to get to the endline or whip in crosses-and the chemistry between them was off.
One can feel a little sympathy for Arteta after Nelson was a pretty late scratch from a game that many would have expected him to play in, but the alteration didn’t work. I believe that the front three was intended to be Aubameyang, Nketiah, and Reiss Nelson, in order to give Lacazette a breather, but after Nelson was unable to play through a groin injury, Arteta had to adjust. Had it worked, he may have looked like the hero, but it didn’t.
In fact, it was pretty far from being successful. Hopefully, it isn’t a tactic we have to resort to frequently, but it was what was deployed for this game and it didn’t work.
3. Stagnant and uncreative
Coming into the match, I had a good amount of excitement at the prospect of seeing Arsenal on the ball. While the results were great, and the drama was high, watching Arsenal play 90 minutes with 30% possession is a bit shit. So, even with the high chance of seeing it come from a rotated side, I was interested in seeing them actually creating in the attack. Unfortunately, we can add a third straight game (maybe even 4th) to the run of games without producing much in the attack.
Aside from Eddie’s set piece opportunity and a few counters here and there, Arsenal created almost no chances with the ball and 0 shots on goal. To Aston Villa’s credit, they did set up their fair share of traps to prevent Arsenal from moving the ball into the channel, while ushering the ball into the congested center. For a team that intentionally has limited the midfield presence in the center of the park to not be able to funnel their attack down the channels, proved to stymie the Arsenal attack.
When Arsenal did manage to move the ball into the wings, they were often settling from early crosses, but their crossing was attrocious. Arsenal registered a whopping 33 crosses in the game – 2 of those were accurate. That is a 6% success rate.
To add to the troubles, Arsenal lacked a progressive ball carrier, struggled to take their chances to go vertical, and it suggests a real problem that needs to be sorted out. Many will want to point to Mesut Ozil as the solution and while there is certainly merit to the point, adding Ozil into the mix is not necessarily the solution.
He does offer a much better option for creating chances in the spaces that Arsenal struggled, but the real root of Arsenal’s issue lies in its attacking predictability. Yesterday, Arsenal were as predictable as it gets in how they were going to get the ball forward in an attempt to create a shot. The problem was, Aston were more than ready to handle it and they shut it down easily.
Arsenal are in dire need of a player that is good on the ball, creative, and more than anything, unpredictable. I don’t enjoy complimenting fellow Premier League teams, but much of Arsenal’s attack today gave of a similar vibe to pre-Bruno Manchester United. Since bringing in Bruno Fernandes, United have added an edge to their game that denies defenses the ability to anticipate what it coming and shut it down.
Mesut Ozil is simply the one comes close to that mold that Arsenal have on hand. Could Ozil have changed that game? Absolutely. Could he have helped work Arsenal shots? 100%. But for me, Arsenals lack of creativity stems from or translates into an incredibly transparent predictability. Predictable is easy to defend, unpredictable leads to creative chances. Arsenal really need to find themselves options that can create that unpredictability on droves.
It was a terrible day all around, but maybe there was one positive – I cared. Much of this year has caused me to resign to the fact that win or lose, my investment in the season was relatively low. The squad often disappointed, the future vision was blurry, the hole we dug ourselves was daunting. But today, with this loss and the loss of another route to an obtainable Europa League – I cared. I cared quite a bit. And that is something to be interested in.
This season has challenged each and every Arsenal supporter in a way that many have likely not been challenged before. To care about their side as it struggles to stay in the top half of the Premier League table for 12 whole months. Keep in mind, the normal season is about 9-10, making this season excruciating. Yet, at the close, I find myself regaining a level investment in this season. I want them to succeed now, so that they have the ability to do more for next year and that is good enough reason to regret today’s result. Sometime a little pain is a good thing. Welcome back.