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Arsenal vs Villa, Where Did Go So Wrong? – Tactical Analysis


Unfortunately for Arsenal, it wasn’t going to be back-to-back Premier League wins ahead of the international break.

Instead, Arsenal found themselves on the end of a 3-0 battering from an in-form Aston Villa.

This report will analyse and decipher Arsenal’s defeat.



What went wrong for Arsenal vs Villa?

Mikel Arteta lined Arsenal up in their usual 3-4-3 and started undisputed number 1, Bernd Leno ahead of a back three of Holding, Gabriel and Tierney. Bellerin and Saka flanked the industrious duo of Thomas and Elneny. Aubameyang, Lacazette and Willian were deployed as the front three.

After a strong summer and great start to the season, Dean Smith called upon former Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to start between the sticks in a 4-4-2. Another new signing in Cash started at right back, alongside Konsa, Mings and Targett. Luiz, McGinn, Trezeguet and talisman Jack Grealish formed the midfield four. Chelsea loanee, Ross Barkley partnered Arsenal fan Ollie Watkins up top.

Aston Villa

In possession, Smith deployed his side in a 4-2-4, trusting his players to get back behind the ball upon losing it. Out of possession, they altered to a more natural 4-4-2. Against Arsenal’s back five, Watkins and Barkley were tasked with playing close together and occupying Arsenal’s three centre backs. One of the two would drop off the defensive line, whilst the other would run in behind. This was in an attempt to drag the lines apart and create vertical and horizontal passing lanes. Coupled with the width, this  completely disjointed Arsenal’s back five, and Villa were then free to run in behind. A common pattern was Grealish and Trezeguet starting narrow and moving wider. They would attack the space between the Arsenal wingbacks and centre backs. This wide front four, prevented Arsenal from pressing aggressively man for man, like they did against Manchester United.

Furthermore, with Villa’s back four staying in place, they could create numerical superiority against Arsenal’s front three and play through the press. In the second phase of build-up, a player (often the fullbacks), would move forward into midfield and Villa could create a 3v2 or 4v2. This unlocked enough space and time to play in behind Arsenal. This was the trigger for the forward runs from Villa’s front four. Smith clearly felt confident with Luiz and McGinn against Partey and Elneny and due to the front four playing wide, he could ensure his back four stayed in place and didn’t venture forward all to often. This allowed them to effectively regain compactness quickly and prevent Arsenal’s counter attacks, with 6 or 4 players back at any one time.

What went wrong for Arsenal vs Villa?

This image shows Villa’s spread out front four. When Matt Targett (18) receives, Grealish (10) sprints from a more narrow midfield position out wide, behind Bellerin. In this specifc situation, Grealish receives and finds McGinn, who scores. However, Arsenal are fortunate that VAR rules it out. This should have been a warning for Arsenal.

Arsenal’s shape

Arsenal were so well drilled in their shape, that they looked uncomfortable when they broke from it. It almost reminds me of Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal, where the players had so many instructions and defensive responsibilities, that they ended up playing sideways and showed little flair and creativity. Arsenal looked very predictable. Maybe this has been impart imprinted on Arsenal, due to Arteta’s assistant being Louis Van Gaal’s former assistant – Albert Stuivenberg. Stuivenberg embodies the rigid Dutch system which Van Gaal champions; not to be confused with Johan Cryuff’s Total Football. Arsenal are looking for 1v1’s, rather than taking on 1,2 or 3 players in a mazy dribble and showing flair. This is perhaps why Pepe is struggling to get a starting birth.

Whenever Arsenal played the ball in the channels for Aubameyang and Willian, Villa could deal with the situation easily. Both Mings and Konsa are very good in the 1v1, using their pace, strength and good defensive technique to win the ball and battle.

It’s been common to see Lacazette drop deep under Arteta and help create a numerical superiority or equality in midfield. Lacazette ended up dropping so deep, that he was non-existent in the Villa penalty box, having 2 touches in the Villa box and only taking 1 shot, which he missed. Moreover, he only attempted 7 passes, completing 5. In total, Lacazette won only 29% of his 14 offensive and defensive duels. Of his total 30 actions, he was successful in just 9. It was yet another poor performance from Lacazette, however it’s hard to say he was alone in the team.

What went wrong for Arsenal vs Villa?

Arsenal had very little central penetration, always looking for Aubameyang and Willian for balls over the top. Villa overloaded down Arsenal’s right and nullified Arsenal’s left sided overload, with Trezeguet on occasions staying more reserved.


What went wrong for Arsenal vs Villa?

As you can see from their average passes, Arsenal just couldn’t do anything centrally. Villa did well to show them the wing. Lacazette really wasn’t connecting the game for Arsenal and the 3v2 he helped create in midfield, was ineffective.


Despite Arsenal passes per defensive action of 7.5, they struggled to effectively press Villa’s back line, who are very adept at playing accurate long balls, for the selfless forward runners. This is shown through both fullbacks, Cash and Targett attempting 8 and 11 passes to the final third respectively, completing 57% and 73% of them. Furthermore, Ming’s played a Villa game high, 8 long passes and was successful with 5 of them.

Arsenal couldn’t cope with Aston Villa moving back their creative hub as deep as they did. The numerical superiority Villa could create, they could beat Arsenal’s press and play the ball, with time and space. Because of how compact Arteta wants Arsenal to be, the back five needed to press higher. Consequently, this would close the space between defensive and the midfield lines. However, this left space in behind, which the Villa defensive playmakers could play the ball into. Against United, despite their blistering pace and tendency to go long, United couldn’t create a good structure which freed a player to play the ball over the top, either in midfield or defence. In contrast Villa could and caused real damage.


In conclusion, Villa well and truly did a job on Arsenal. Astute tactical changes from Dean Smith and his staff, exploited Arsenal’s weaknesses and allowed for Villa to cause havoc. In truth, the quality of chances Villa made, were not much better than Arsenal, with Villa having an expected goals of 1.49 (14 shots 6 on target), to Arsenal’s 1.39 (14 shots and 2 on target). However, Villa were very clinical and Arsenal weren’t, and this had been something which has been commonplace over recent weeks.

It feels as though Arteta changes small nuances in his team ahead of the opposition (e.g. personal, small tactical instructions), but maintains the macro of their system of play (e.g. 3-4-3). This is understandable given how many games they have and how little time they have to train. The worrying thing is, teams are starting to work this out and in particular, those who do not have midweek  fixtures, have the time to develop a counter to Arsenal. For the first time since Mourinho last season, Arteta met a manager who changed large aspects of his tactical plan, to get the better of Arsenal. It will be interesting if after the international break, we see Arteta change any of his tactics or tactical principles, in response to the opposition and difficulties Arsenal are facing.



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