How Arteta got it wrong in Villarreal- Tactical Points
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
Questionable tactical decisions and poor execution on the field are the biggest talking points from a frustrating game. The away goal is perhaps the only takeaway for the second leg.
Smith-Rowe as a ‘false-nine’ is an interesting tactical tweak to analyse and critique but conceding goals that early in a knockout game nullifies the possibility of seeing a plan in action. A direct relation can be drawn between Lacazette’s absence and Arsenal’s attacking play over the last few games as the Frenchman’s unselfish linkup play provides the focal point for the other players to flourish, irrespective of whether it’s a counter-attacking plan or breaking down a low block.
In terms of alternatives, Nketiah tends to drift around to influence play and Arsenal have struggled to get into the final third with the same efficiency. Martinelli certainly provides energy and industry to the role and a promising prospect on paper, but the Brazillian is someone more in the mould of Aubameyang in terms of movement, which isn’t necessarily the right fit in this setup. Physical characteristics aside, Smith-Rowe has exceptional close control under extreme pressure and provides the closest replacement to the Frenchman in terms of link-up play.
The key to executing a game plan is controlling the pace of the play but one of the biggest frustrations from this season is that we have conceded goals from innocuous situations after a prolonged periods of pinning opponents in their half. In so many cases, it’s literally been the opponent’s first foray out of their half and that can be very deflating. Another familiar scenario this season has been conceding very early and playing catch up the rest of the game. In this game, the early goal had a clear impact on the players. The high-press was disorganised, Ceballos seemed to be stuck between tracking the midfield runners and pressing higher up the field. The Spanish side seemed to always find the spare man with relative ease in the first half and added to that, Arsenal’s passing rhythm was nowhere near good enough.
With the lack of an overlapping left-back, Arsenal's set-up has shifted in recent weeks, with the use of attacking ‘8s’, with Ceballos on the left and Odegaard/Smith-Rowe on the right. But one particular issue that stood out in Arsenal’s attacking play was that both the Real Madrid loanees love to gravitate towards the ball rather than complement when the other has the ball and this can make things relatively static and predictable with overlapping runs not as much of a feature. With Tierney coming back, reverting back to the old setup should help in getting the Norwegian more involved in the game.
Another key component to our attacking play this year is the increased use of the lofted ball into the channel or using the long diagonal to provide an added dimension to the attack. On numerous occasions both in this game and the ones against Everton/Fulham, the spaces were there to exploit but the pass wasn’t forthcoming. The one noticeable occasion in the first half where this was effective was the Pepe handball which led to the penalty being overturned. Xhaka operating as a left-back for the last few games is certainly a big factor w.r.t this issue.
Unai Emery bringing on an extra midfielder for the second half allowed them to pack their own box (which is weirdly the reason Saka got a penalty) and this switch allowed Arsenal to control the ball, but we failed to make the dominance count and ended up shooting ourselves in the foot as usual. Villareal are a proper knockout side in every sense of the word so errors from our side are the way they are going to score so as long as things are tight at the back, their threat isn’t as much as portrayed.