Tactical Points from Arsenal’s dismal defeat at Villa Park
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
After all the incredible highs of last week, everything came tumbling against a side desperately fighting for survival in the league:
When the teams were announced, it appeared to be a last-minute alteration in attack with Nelson picking up a knock, which meant Nketiah was started on the right of a front three. Xhaka had to be rested since he’s the only outfield player who’s played every three days without being substituted since coming back from injury. One of the interesting points from the line-up was to see how a Ceballos-Torreira would work out and the impact of Xhaka being on the bench.
This was going to be a completely different game from an Arsenal point of view compared to the ones against City and Liverpool as we were going to control possession and try and breakdown Villa rather than be compact and play on the counter.
From the early stages, it was very evident that Ceballos would have to provide the spark in midfield with Torreira sitting back alongside the centre-halves.
Against both City and Liverpool, Arsenal had a numerical disadvantage in midfield but stayied compact without the ball which stopped that threat. However, at Villa Park, Arsenal had the same disadvantage but had control of possession here. With Torreira hanging back in midfield, Arsenal essentially had four players behind the halfway line not impacting the build-up and Ceballos got crowded out in midfield.
With Lacazette heavily marked, Ceballos had no passing options in front of him and was forced to go either backward or sideways. Building through the wing-backs was the only way to progress past the Villa midfield but with the ball shifted so slowly and there was minimal penetration in their half.
Cedric did get into some decent positions on the right side but Nketiah seemed to run into the box every time rather than link up with him which forced the Portuguese to either cross early or go backwards. Villa’s midfielders always supported their full-backs so our wing-backs were always crowded out and needed support.
In the second half, Arsenal shifted to a 4-2-3-1 in attack and 3-4-3 in defence which gave Kolasinac a chance to get forward down the left. But the lack of an extra man in midfield, which could have come about with Willock replacing Nketiah, could have provided that spark between the lines. Even after the likes of Pepe and Tierney were brought on, there was a distinct lack of energy in the play, with the Ivorian unwilling to take on his man and create something.
Defensively, Arsenal were solid from open play but gave away silly fouls and Grealish falling to the deck at the sight of an Arsenal player was not helpful. Villa appeared to target Saka and Kolasinac with long diagonals down the left which resulted in a lot of set-piece defending to worry about.
Arsenal would have to eventually shift to a back 4, especially against low block teams, but our biggest bugbear defensively is the pace of our defenders. Any ball into the channels exposes the likes of Luiz, Mustafi and even Holding, which is why Arsenal moved to a back three in the first place, so recruitment in the summer in these areas has to be done keeping these issues in mind.