Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal 0-3 Aston Villa: Arsenal fears confirmed in 90 minutes

Looking back on a wet, miserable night with a miserable, miserable result. Lots to think about.

Arsenal were in the hunt for three major points and a huge win to take them into the international break. Three  points would see Arsenal  climb the table and settle into a position within arm’s reach of the top. To do that, they would need to find a way to beat a Villa side that has started their season in an impressive way. 

Arteta named a side that was unchanged from the side that won 3 points against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Partey, Elneny, Saka, Willian, Aubameyang, Lacazette

Again, it wasn’t a side that people were overly happy with, but this time it had the backing of being the same squad that had just beaten Manchester United. What we got in execution was everything people feared this selection would produce against United… just one week later against Villa.

Arsenal were quite literally beat from the first whistle, conceding on an Aston Villa movement 50 seconds into the match that would foreshadow a lot of what we would go wrong during the proceeding 90 minutes. Villa found Grealish in space between Bellerin and Holding; Arsenal’s defense was too far off him, giving him time to scan the field and run at Holding; Grealish found someone making a run who smashed in to the net. Far too easy and complacent defending. If it were not for Ross Barkley being just in line with Leno’s vision while offside, Arsenal would have been down 1-0.As it stood, the scoreline stayed 0-0 and a wakeup call was sent early to the Gunners.

That call was never heard. Arsenal were a passive side without the ball that looked to sit in their 5-2-3 defensive shape and took on too much pressure. They didn’t really look to press, they weren’t setting traps, and they weren’t closing down Aston Villa’s most dangerous players. Arsenal were second to loose balls, they lost their individual battles, and they were physically dominated. The phrase “men versus boys” came to mind a lot as Saka and others we manhandled.

On the ball the Gunners were slow and laboring in their passing and movement; they were very sloppy with errant passes and a few stomach-lurching back passes; and they were let down time and time again by players that really shouldn’t be letting the team down.  

The fact that Arsenal somehow kept the score at 1-0 until the 73rd minute was about the only reason Arsenal fans may have had any semblance of hope. That was erased emphatically by Villa in the final 20 minutes when Ollie Watkins scored two in 3 minutes, including a full-field counter that starts from Emi Martinez’s hands.

Arsenal were diabolical and truly humbled. To say that was the worst we have seen from Arsenal under Mikel Arteta is probably fair. In fact, that may be one of the worst 90-minute performances since Baku. Last year’s Watford match may be in with a shout. A summarizing bit of it all may be the fact that one of their best chances to score came when Gabriel hit a low cross and found Rob Holding for a one touch shot… yikes.

It’s a tough game to analyze because we didn’t really learn a lot about Arsenal. We really just confirmed a lot of worries all at once, which will leave Arteta with plenty to think about over the international break.

When you aim for small margins and few chances, there’s not a lot of room to miss

Arteta opted once more for a 3-4-3 setup and the defensive rigidity that comes with it. Or, that’s supposed to come with it. It’s a formation I, personally, didn’t want to see because I didn’t feel Aston Villa is the same type of side as Manchester United. Villa wants to press, they want to use their front four to run at you, and given we saw Villa struggle against sides that look to defend through attack, like Leeds, I had hopes Arsenal would replicate their methods.

They didn’t and it has to be noted that the greatest benefit of the 3-4-3 also has the propensity to be its downfall.

Arsenal’s 3-4-3 aims to reduce the margins within the game. It aims to limit the amount of opportunity that oppositions have to create chances to score, but it also has proven to cost Arsenal their own chance creation. When you aim for small margins and few chances, there isn’t a lot of room for missing your own opportunities.

A person could point to 13 shots and say that’s enough to win, and it is. We have seen Arsenal win with less. But Arsenal only put 2 shots on target, hardly worked Martinez, and wasted more than a handful of great chances – none bigger than Lacazette’s header over the bar or Rob Holding’s one-time shot that went wide. I’ll forgive Rob since he’s a center back, the ball came from Gabriel, and that whole chance in and of itself is an oddity.

The formation is overly dependent on being efficient in the attack and limiting the opposition’s chances. So, when Arsenal registers an xG of 1.54 and score 0 goals, while giving up an xG of 2.40 and conceding 3 goals, it’s a complete of a disaster. When Arsenal scores and own goal early and are under pressure without the ability to break the press and move the ball, we see the short comings of this style of play. The issue I have, and I imagine many others have, is that is doesn’t feel like Arsenal have the ability to have a match go off script.

Within this style, Arsenal don’t feel capable of creating magic and winning a 4-3 thriller. They don’t feel like they have the ability to break out and create fireworks to shift the momentum and spark a comeback. It feels like they need to keep a game under control or they risk getting taken out of it completely. That’s what we saw against Villa.

Arteta needs to find a more flexible system that can adapt to what type of game the match becomes in the 35th minute, or he needs to be willing to change the plan when the 3-4-3 doesn’t fit.

Things have to change, front to back

This concept of changing when things aren’t working is one that we have to hope comes with his growth as a manager. It seems clear that Arteta comes into each match with a plan and backs himself that that strategy is the way to go. Against, Aston Villa, Arteta didn’t change from the 3-4-3 formation, even in the face of needing to create more and having Aston Villa dominate the side. He made like-for-like alterations with all 3 subs and while Arsenal may have pushed an extra man as the match went on, generally the feel stayed the same.

Arsenal were taken apart by everything they don’t have. And what I mean by that is Grealish, Barkley, McGinn, and even Ollie Watkins to an extent were brilliant, and as an Arsenal fan I watched on with a bit of envy. Between attacking players not delivering, not getting service, or the lack of a real attacking midfielder playing in the central of the field, Arsenal didn’t have a single player like Aston Villa’s front, much less four.

In the pre-match blog, I wrote about the compatibility in the way Barkley and Grealish complement one another. Both are technicians with the ability to dismantle backlines through means of power, creativity, physicality, and pace. McGinn is benefitting from being removed from opposition’s point of focus, while Ollie Watkins is brimming with confidence around the goal front. They were creative, they were fluid, and they were everything Arsenal fans have been dreaming of, which hurts to write.

Arsenal need a change and Arteta likely needs to show that same ruthless management style that created non-negotiables, removed Ozil and Guendouzi from the team, and talks the talk in interviews. It starts with the horror show that has become Willian and Lacazette’s effectiveness within the side.

Not only are they not producing on the pitch in most games this season, they are actively taking the spots that should be occupied by others and likely impeding on Arsenal’s progress. We  don’t know if they are impeding the team’s progress, but I am VERY willing to find out if it means starting Pepe on the right wing and Aubameyang down the center.

In the midfield, unless Arsenal are playing the likes of Manchester City or Liverpool, I want to see them play with three. However Arteta sees fit to make up those three I will leave up to him, although I have a preference. I think Willock needs to be involved in the 18-man selection until someone else suggests they have the ability to play in between the lines with some level of quality. All season it has been an unoccupied space and against Aston Villa, when Arsenal needed it once more, there was no one on the bench that could offer it as a substitution.

I don’t pretend Willock is our best midfielder, that he is an instant star, that he will guarantee a change in the course of the season. But he is different. He is just flat out different than anyone Arsenal have in their side right now and that has to count in a major way. Especially, if he is producing good performances in the Europa League to back it up.

Finally, in the backline, we may have seen why Luiz is an effective member of Arteta’s structure. Rob Holding is a decent defender, he made a few nice plays, and a few mistakes (who didn’t?), but he doesn’t offer that passing range that Luiz does. In the face of missing attacking options, Luiz may have to be a necessary evil, even if he concedes a few chances through boneheaded errors.

Arteta will have the full international break to mull things over, review the play, and draw up significant changes. I wouldn’t goes as far as to suggest that yesterday’s match against Villa was “must win”. We are still only 8 matches into a 38-match season, but it was a match that everyone knew could set the tone for the rest of the season.

Arsenal took a step forward against Manchester United, but a major step backwards against Aston Villa. If you’re reading the tea leaves, it feels like Arsenal will compete with some of the bigger clubs, but yet again, their inability to consistently get results against teams they are on even footing with will see them quickly removed from top four contention, and likely struggle for top six.

Side events and tournaments like the FA Cup won a lot of praise for Arteta last season, but putting eggs in those baskets, without yielding serious progress within the Premier League won’t see Arteta get a lot of love from supporters. When Arsenal return they will be on top of their Europa League group, but the idea of having a run of easier fixtures to pick up points doesn’t really exist in the Premier League anymore. At least, not when you are an 11th place side struggling to score. Suddenly the run of Leeds, Wolverhampton, and Tottenham look daunting and it’s a dread I’m not looking forward to having for the next two weeks.

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