In the prematch blog, the conversation revolved around Arsenal needing two responses — one to this midweek injustice and one for the pounding they took from Aston Villa in November.
The piece also looked at a few areas in which Arsenal struggled in that first match that would need addressing.
- I focused on the fact that Arsenal struggled to get out of their own area, conceding the ball too easily under Aston Villa’s well-coordinated pressure
- That Aston Villa were great at compressing the game and pushing their defensive line up to keep opposition blocked out of the attacking third, especially with the lead. We looked at the first matches heatmaps:
- That Arsenal would have to rely on the passing range of Xhaka and Partey to help beat that pressure and block, while looking to exploit the space vacated by fullbacks, and getting their attacking midfielder involved early — someone they didn’t have that first match.
Before the match I even tweeted my there keys to the match:
At full-time, it felt fair to say that none of these were achieved. Maybe number two was, but that had more to do with the fact that Arsenal gave up the lead, and eventual winner, within the first 3 minutes of the match, which let Aston Villa create this shape:
It’s another heat map that tells the tale of the match in its own way. It took Arsenal less than three minutes to make a sloppy error, turnover the ball in a dangerous area, give Aston Villa a transition, and get punished for it by — of course — Ollie Watkins. His third goal against Arsenal in a little over 90 minutes at that point.
From there, Aston Villa were content to sit a little deeper, keep their shape, and force Arsenal to come to them. It’s a tactic that has frustrated Arsenal a lot this season and did once more. In the heat map, you can see the clear intent to sit deep centrally and break out down the wings through Jack Grealish and Traore. For the most part, Arsenal handled those wing areas well, but early in the match it did take away some of the adventuring runs we see usually from our fullbacks.
As for the third key point, getting Smith Rowe involved early, Arsenal struggled to get him on the ball in the central areas they wanted as Villa forced him extremely wide.
Two of Smith Rowe’s most central touches, in the center circle, are kickoffs to start the game and restart the game after conceding.
It’s tough to tell what this game could have been like, or would have been like, considering Arsenal’s early concession. As if there was still a hangover from the midweek decision, Arsenal came out with sloppy play from the back that was pounced on and dispatched.
Arsenal may have controlled the game in terms of possession from that point on, but it feels like a stretch to suggest it was “all Arsenal”. There were more than a few heart stopping moments of play from Villa’s attack that forced big moments from Arsneal’s debutant Mat Ryan. However, it wouldn’t be an Arsenal game if there were some contentious moments with the ref to talk about as well.
The first one came early in the second half when Bukayo Saka was in space with Aston Villa’s Konsa that resulted in tangled legs about 40 yards out, and a whole lot of rage from Arsenal fans believing Konsa was “last man” and deserving of a red card.
Personally, in the moment, I didn’t feel as though it should have been a sending off for any reason besides the similarities to Luiz’s sending off. I thought there were some stark contrasts between the two situations making them different —including but not limited to — the distance from goal, Matty Cash having the main line on dropping back versus Saka having to cover the distance at an angle which makes the “clear goal scoring opportunity” a bit murky, and the fact that Konsa actually comes up with the ball at the end of the exchange. I certainly thought it was a foul, but there is a bit of shirt tugging, and him coming up with the ball in the exchange as Saka looks to take a touch across him qualifies in my mind as making an attempt on the ball. Something we were told definitively, Luiz didn’t make.
Finally, and I admit it’s not technically in the rules but in my gut, if I put Rob Holding in that situation and he was shown a red card for that play, I know I would be raging with enough expletives to shut down the internet (is that possible? can’t be) that refs had given Arsenal a straight red card for the second match in a row, for a completely non-expulsion-deserving challenge.
So the murky waters come to what side of the fence you want to view it from — Luiz’s shouldn’t have been a red card, we were fuming it was a red card, which makes this one also undeserving, or Luiz’s shouldn’t have been a red card, but it was given a red card and upheld, so this one needs to be as well, even if it probably wasn’t deserving?
With all that said, there was a second moment that I firmly believe was missed, or called wrong, or not even really reviewed by VAR. Arsenal took a corner kick and put it across the top of the six-yard box where Lacazette is pretty clearly tugged down by Emi Martinez.
For me it was a pretty clear foul. I know the argument was a half-hearted “who initiated contact first” or whatever, but he’s absolutely wrestled to the ground. That ball bounces in the six, Lacazette isn’t able to get after it, and VAR has taken about 30 seconds to look at it — possibly less. That is a missed call in my mind, that is a big deal, and that changes the landscape of this match.
Instead, Villa were able to simply sit in their shape, control the game without the ball, set up their traps, press, and look to counter. They probably had better chances even after the goal than Arsenal actually produced, despite all the possession they allowed the Gunners to have, which remains the overall narrative in my book.
Partey struggled with his passing, looking much more like the Partey versus United — rather than the Partey we saw against Wolves in the first half — and worryingly, he went down with a “muscular injury” and was subbed off. Despite having an off day, the midfield’s effectiveness did drop without him on the field, which is a real sign of what he means to this team.
In terms of Arsenal’s attack, it felt like two steps back. Back to where they were against Crystal Palace, with an inability to create real quality chances.
Did the midweek decision cost Arsenal 6 points? Certainly cost them three, and the hangover into the start of the match today put Arsenal on the back foot from the get-go, but it was a team loss. You can single out a few names in key moments, but the team as a whole didn’t bring the quality needed to break down Villa and find the net. Arteta arguably didn’t make the best decision with his Willian substitution and Arsenal find themselves dropping another tough match.
The loss is tough, the takeaways are tougher.
Hangover very evident. Didn’t respond and by the time they tried it was over.
Arsenal are “losing to themselves” as Bellerin said and they have to acknowledge that and change. While I didn’t fully agree with the sentiment in terms of the Wolverhampton match, it certainly rings true today. A diabolical start, a stagnant middle, and an inability to create chances given the time they spent on the ball will always end with dropped points in this league.
The second half was better, there were some positive moments, but there were also some opportunities the other way that forced big moments from Mat Ryan. Nothing as scandalous as Cedric’s initial back pass and miscommunication with Gabriel, but Villa’s pressure created a lot of transition opportunities for them to create from favorable platforms. Only one went in, but 8 on target tells you that Aston Villa did a lot more knocking on the door than Arsenal.
All bark no bite
The last part of the point above moves us seamlessly into point #2. Arsenal’s attack and time with the ball lacked creativity at pivotal moments and didn’t demonstrate a lot of sharpness nor creativity. Pepe had a good moment where he put his right-footed shot just wide, Xhaka had an early free kick that forced a huge save from Martinez, but with only 3 shots on goal, it mostly felt like Arsenal were feebly knocking on the door with no intent to go through it if it opened.
They probed, they moved it, they barked like they were a big, dominant dog, but when Aston Villa sat deep and put the onus on the Gunners’ attack to make something of it, the faltered.
Certainly not having Tierney hurts, but the play down the spine was completely missing. We saw Smith Rowe’s touch map earlier in the article, but Lacazette also ended the game with 0 shots. Arsenal’s wingers are their most dangerous aspect, but they still need something down the middle to finish things off or keep defenses honest. Lacazette came on strong recently, but as we look ahead to the summer, you have to imagine Arteta is looking to bring someone else into the central role, regardless of how Lacazette finishes the year.
Finally, it would be a miss not to comment on the fact that Arsenal reverted back to their ineffective crossing game. Launching 40 crosses into the box, Arsenal only connected on 8 of them. A pretty small amount that looks even worse when no one is there steering them on frame. Teams are putting extra attention on Emile Smith Rowe after seeing how devastating he can be, so Arsenal will need to scheme up ways to get players involved centrally, not stuck hugging the touchline.
Ryan looked nice in net. Odegaard also looked bright and dangerous.
I wanted to sneak one positive bit into these three takeaways. In net Ryan made his debut and looked really great. I don’t believe there is much that he could do about the goal itself, but he made plenty of great saves, including staying tall as Traore tried to dink it over his head from inside the box. With that performance, I find myself a little less concerned about the off-chance that Leno gets hurt.
Ryan came out and collected crosses and lofted balls nice, his shot blocking looked great —including how far he palmed shots away from oncoming trouble — and his technique on the saves looked excellent. It’s probably a stretch to say Leno should watch out, but I found Ryan’s presence in net calming. Visually the difference between his technique and tidiness when facing shots, compared to Runarsson, shows you he is truly a step above, which is a nice feeling.
As for Ødegaard — he came in and played around 30 minutes and looked really great on the ball. He, more so than Smith Rowe, was active in getting himself on the ball between the lines. Sadly he smashed his shot into Row Z but he put himself in the right place to get on the end of it, on that occasion and others. I was surprised Smith Rowe played, simply given the minutes he has played lately, so I will be keeping eyes out for what Arteta does in the coming matches. At some point, Smith Rowe needs a rest. It may be best to give Ødegaard a start before we head back into Europa League fixtures.
Arsenal lose. They drop down to 10th. They make their upcoming road look a lot more daunting. I won’t be surprised if they fall a little further before ending the season on a nice run that settles them in that 9th-7th position range. Arsenal are a mid table team and they are easing their way into that position it seems. Next up, Leeds after an eight day break.