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As Arsenal prepare to for their second match of the season against Aston Villa, they must also be ready to leave their match against Wolverhampton behind them.
“I don’t know how hard it is for everybody but we have to move on,” Arteta said. “There are things to learn from the game, things we can’t control obviously and a lot of positives to take there, [so we must] move on, go for the next one and keep the momentum going.”
No Arsenal fan needs reminding of the fact that David Luiz and Bernd Leno were sent off with straight red cards during the midweek matchup. Bernd Leno’s was probably deserved after misreading the ball outside of his box and smacking it away from an onrushing attacker, but no one would be faulted for having the firm belief that all of that was simply dominoes from Craig Pawson’s decision to send off David Luiz for incidental contact that brought down Wolverhampton’s attacker inside the box on the stroke of half time.
A penalty could be understood — contact was made, the attacker went down, and a goal scoring opportunity was spoiled, but the contact was made by the attacker’s foot making contact with Luiz’s knee while running. The rules are clear for situations in which contact is made with an attacker when there is no intent to win the ball, but Pawson was clearly unwilling to fathom the fact that there was no intent to play the ball because there was simply no intent to begin with. He will point to the FA’s decision to rule against Arsenal’s appeal as justification, but it feels like a friend getting approval from his own friends for his actions.
These red cards mean both Luiz and Leno will be suspended for the match against Villa and Arteta is left with two decisions. In net, January signing Mat Ryan will likely get the nod. He was hurt the last two matches, but did practice yesterday in the lead up. The choice at center back is a little more interesting. With Pablo Mari available and ready for selection, Arteta will decide if he goes with Gabriel who has been an absolute star this season, but struggled in his return against Southampton, or Pablo Mari who looked very neat and tidy in his matches before picking up his recent injury.
These two are positions that Arteta will be forced to make changes in, but it’s not the only position that raises questions. Aubameyang is healthy and available, but the left wing has been occupied splendidly in his absence by Nicolas Pepe, who seems to be finding form and clicking with Arteta’s desires. Arteta has preached the need for a competitive atmosphere at Arsenal, but that atmosphere brings tough decisions. Play the man in form or return to your captain and the man who has carried the team the past two years — despite him struggling this year?
Arteta responded to a question about the Pepe, Aubameyang selection: “At the end of the day, we have to play the players who are in the best form and everybody has to earn the right to play and participate in the games. That’s what everybody’s doing, pushing each other to raise the level. You can see that the level has been raised because everybody is playing at their best. There’s still room for improvement so everybody has to keep pushing.”
One response is needed from an Arsenal side that faced immense adversity midweek, but they will also be looking for a response to the first match against Aston Villa back in November in which the Villans rolled into the Emirates and worked Arsenal for a 3-0 win.
Arsenal struggled in the first affair to get out of their area, despite having more possession of the ball and Aston Villa’s press numbers — in terms of quantity — being about equal. What Aston Villa was able to do against Arsenal was press effectively. With a 30% success rate, Aston Villa forced a good amount of error and issues, including 15 dispossessions in the match. Dispossessions are far from the be-all and end-all of deciding statistics, but of Arsenal’s fifteen, six came from Mohammed Elneny and Dani Ceballos in the midfield alone.
This concept of locking opponents down in their own half and controlling the game, even without the ball is one of Aston Villa’s strengths. Take a look at the heatmaps from Arsenal’s first match with Villa.
Arsenal has more possession than Villa, but struggled immensely to get themselves out of their own half. Look at the defensive third of Aston Villa’s map (right). The space that should be occupied by full backs is vacated as they push up the field, and their center backs patrol.
Arsenal will need a response for that this time around, and it may come from Thomas Partey. Partey only played 45 minutes in the first match before being substituted at half time. Additionally, Arsenal didn’t use Granit Xhaka. Both midfielders are likely to be selected, and both are capable of hitting that pass accurately to relieve the pressure and exploit the space.
The final note on Villa, and one that is much easier said than done, is shutting down the wings. Take a look at the heatmap once more and look at the two wings, especially noting the left wing where Jack Grealish plays. Arsenal were devastated in that corner. With Hector Bellerin pushing up early to get involved, Aston Villa had the ability to ping balls into that corner with ease, leaving Bellerin scrambling back when Arsenal turn the ball over in the midfield.
This often left Holding to cover, stuck 1v1 on Grealish, or created an opportunity for Villa to overload the left and outnumber a chaotic backline with Grealish, McGinn, and Barkley attacking. Both Barkley and Grealish had assists in the first match, and both were netted by Ollie Watkins who has proven himself more than capable of getting on the end of good service with 9 goals on the season.
If Arsenal can control the possession and resist turning the ball over in the midfield, peg Aston Villa back and deny their fullbacks that ability to lock them in their own half down the wings, while getting some great opportunities of their own through Xhaka and Partey’s passing range — the Gunners will give themselves a really good chance. Villa still has more than enough quality to contend, even when their game gets altered, so expect a 90 minute clash, even if Arsenal figure them out.
Villa has lost two of their last 3 games, including losses to West Ham and Burnley. The Clarets are known for playing a very consistent starting eleven and as this season goes on, squad fatigue will become a real challenge. As a whole, Aston Villa looked sluggish and off the pace against the Hammers, which may be early signs of some squad exhaustion. If this is the case, Arsenal won’t mind one bit if they can take the game to Villa in their own home.
The winner finds themselves in 8th or 9th place and on top of the loser, and that ain’t such a bad reward for a win.
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