As Arsenal find themselves on their worst slide of the season, four matches without a win, and Manchester City have overtaken them for the first time, it’s impossible not to feel like the reunion with Unai Emery has to be a sour affair for their previous manager. Arsenal are in desperate need of righting their ship in the form of a win if they want to stay fully in the hunt for the title.
One could argue that desperation is premature given the point tally shows the Gunners level with City, carrying a game in hand, but this season has been a story of overachieving and leaps of talent from young stars coinciding to put them in this position. Sadly, this slide seems to be seeing of those same talents hitting a simultaneous rough patch. So if the desperation isn’t there in points, it’s hard not to believe this side needs a win to retain that mental belief that they are in the hunt.
Aston Villa presents a real opportunity to reclaim winning form. They are sitting in 11th place on -8 goal differential and going through a transition period with new manager Unai Emery. They were beaten 4-2 by Leicester City and conceded three goals in the first half against Manchester City, before losing 3-1. However, we would be remiss if we pretended this away fixture should be a walk in the park.
If there is one aspect of Unai Emery’s career worth remembering at all times, it’s his ability to get teams to punch above their weight and win big games. In the lead up to today, I watched Villa’s games versus Leicester and Manchester City to see what we could expect and identify some key opportunities.
What to expect from Aston Villa
After the Everton match, I wrote that Dyche had handed the league a blueprint that many of the ‘weaker’ sides would be willing to try when playing Arsenal. Why? Because it wasn’t a complex system, it fits with how many of them already defensively set up, and it worked. Brentford then deployed a similar game plan, retrofit for their two-forward system and it worked again.
Aston Villa look primed to give it their best whack.
Versus Manchester City, Villa spent most of the match in a defensive 4-4-2, similar to what Arsenal faced versus Brentford. Villa showed a willingness to drop a midfielder into the backline to make it a 5-3-2 and a dedication to shifting bodies out to the wings to prevent themselves from being overloaded. Douglas Luiz and Boubacar Kamara anchor their central midfield while Buendia and Jacob Ramsey flanked them wide. Leading their pressing efforts was the tandem of Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey.
There’s a chance we see Unai flex in someone like Coutinho to add some transition attacking skill or John McGinn to ramp up the physical, robust play, but the goal will be much the same as Brentford’s and Everton’s: clog the middle, double team in the wings, sit deep, try to transition out and have Watkins win duels with Saliba or Gabriel. Watkins is not the duel winner Ivan Toney is so they will have to alter the plan and that favors Arsenal.
This formation has stumped Arsenal the last few matches, City excluded, but Arsenal haven’t proven themselves capable of breaking it down to create enough goal scoring opportunities in February.
Fortunately, in watching Villa be broken down by Manchester City, there are a few opportunities.
Proclivity for defensive disarray
Compared the astute defensive structure on display against Everton and Brentford, two well drilled teams — at least one well-drilled side and a new Dyche side with all the reason to buy in — Villa lacks the diligence. They flexed between a four-back, five-back, and even six-back defensive line, their central pairing didn’t track central runners, and while they stopped the danger in the wings, they were slow to recompose themselves and shift back to their 4-4-2 shape once the ball was recirculated.
What it showed was a team that could be stretched around to create pockets of space. They struggled to retain their shape and that lack of reliability meant defenders were often unaware of their surroundings which produced easy seams and opportunities for exploitation.
Lots of teams struggle versus City, but given the overlap in how Arsenal play and can dominate space, this could be an opportunity to take advantage of a side that hasn’t found their Unai-sea-legs.
Split the half-space seams
Hand in hand with the first point, is the opportunity Arsenal have to devastate Villa in the positions generally occupied by Ødegaard and Xhaka. Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan are fantastic players, very attacking, but the lanes they had to waltz through to get in behind Konsa and Calum Chambers was near criminal at times.
De Bruyne created 3 chances in the game, Gündogan had 4 shots and a goal, and together had 103 touches on the ball.
As City pushed Aston Villa side-to-side and their wingers forced defenders deeper and wider, the seams split open like the Red Sea. I’ll talk about lineup later, but whoever is playing in Arsenal’s attacking midfield roles has a real opportunity to have a career day.
Hit the switch hard and fast
However that opportunity for midfielders only comes if Arsenal can find a ball that has been missing for them lately. The zip in passes has got missing and the shift from side-to-side has been too slow to catch defenses out, but rediscovering that ball is crucial to beating this Aston Villa side.
Jacob Ramsey and Emilio Buendia were the two midfielders in the channels and they were routinely overzealous in their efforts to join transition opportunities but lethargic in how they got back. It created so many opportunities for City to press, win the ball back, and hit the skip pass to far wing that then isolated outside backs, or forced defenders into awkward double teams that left gaps.
Hit the switch, attack the space, find the seam it opens up in behind.
Jorginho has space to push forward
Unfortunately for Arsenal news is surfacing that suggests Thomas Partey will not be available for this match as he continues to mend from the injury that removed from from the lineup on Wednesday. Not only is this unfortunate because he’s Arsenal’s best midfielder and one of our most influential players, but because Aston Villa left SO MUCH space for Rodri to step up and join the attack creating overwhelming numbers.
As Villa became stretched and dropped a fifth player into their backline, Watkins and Bailey would remain high often creating a formation that can almost be described as a 5-3-0-2.
With little to worry about, and the ability to join the attack and surprise the Villa back line and cause defenders to make a choice, Rodri was an attacking force. He created 4 chances, 1 Big Chance, 3 shots, and scored a goal – albeit from a set piece.
Perhaps Jorginho will impress us all once more with an outstanding performance.
This season, Aston Villa have conceded 34 goals and 11 have been of set pieces. They gave up a goal on a corner kick versus City and they looked very shaky on quite a few others. Arsenal on the other hand have scored 8 goals off set pieces which presents a real opportunity to take advantage and get on the scoresheet.
A lineup that manufactures a response
Yesterday I wrote that Arteta has to take it upon himself to select a lineup that manufactures a response. I respect — and agreed with — the notion of selecting the same side we have seen most the season for Brentford and Manchester City, but even in the face of improved performances, there has yet to be a full-fledged response. This match will be the third this week and between rotating players and desperately needing a response, a changed lineup could be the spark needed.
Admittedly, Arteta’s hands are tied when it comes to selecting too bold of a lineup given the injures to his two most crucial players — Jesus and Partey. He has to cater to Jorginho and Nketiah which means he may feel the need to protect the midfield more than he would with Partey, but it’s impossible not to feel like the potential for attacking fireworks is there for the taking.
If Arsenal can dominate the ball as they have in many of their away matches, control the space through their fullbacks and central midfielders and take advantage of the opportunities above, they could make an emphatic return to form.
A lineup I would be really excited to see. I know some people have been adamant about seeing Kieran Tierney, and there is plenty of reason to get behind the idea, the reason I haven’t opted for him is baked in the vision of having Zinchenko join Jorginho to dominate the central space with an iron fist, control the tempo as he can, and I feel less of a need for routine overlaps with Trossard on the left win. Additionally, if he comes central as he does, there could be more opportunity for someone to step up into the vacant space that Rodri took advantage of.
The others feel more self-explanatory. Ben White reclaiming that spot seems inevitable, short of Arteta wanting to make a statement on his belief in Tomiyasu.
Trossard has more than earned the opportunity to start and should get that chance today.
Nketiah will come down to his legs and the fact that he has played a lot of minutes since Jesus’ injury, but you can bet if he is feeling good, he will want to play. He know Jesus’ return is on the horizon which will see his minutes restricted heavily. I think Arteta knows that too and will opt for him once more.
The boldest move would be if Arteta looks to add more firepower to the side and remove Xhaka for Fabio Vieira or Emile Smith Rowe’s attacking ability. Arsenal have done a lot of social posting about Emile’s availability so read into that as much as you’d like. It’s risky to opt for this and potential leave Jorginho exposed, but I think few would say it’s not something that would excite them to see.
Finally, I left Saka in, but he too could be rotated out of the starting lineup for Vieira or Emile Smith Rowe as well.
Arsenal need an emphatic response to put themselves back on track and mixing up the lineup with names like Trossard, Emile Smith Rowe, and Vieira could ramp up the attacking potential, raise the technical quality, and create a look that Villa is less prepared for.
It seems understandable that they would look to Everton and Brentford as encouraging signs of a system that stumps this Arsenal side, but there are plenty of key opportunities for Arsenal to take advantage of to break down a defensive block.
If I could summarize in one sentence: Rediscover the passing zip to stretch a lax defensive structure and find the seams to put attacking midfielders in spaces to create.
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