So that was a painful experience. Villa collapsed to Arsenal 5-0, outmatched in every area of the field. However it was in one area above all that they suffered - the midfield, where the trio of Delph, Cleverley and Sánchez were ineffectual in attack and bypassed with humiliating ease in defence.
Here's a blow by blow look at a typical passage of play:
The Bermuda Triangle of the missing Villa midfield
Here's Villa's midfield triangle after Arsenal have worked the ball past the initial pressure from Benteke and Gil. At this point, Delph should be taking responsibility for going to the man and putting pressure on the ball. Pressure here would make this a risky moment for the Gunners - lose possession and Villa have the numbers for a break. However with no-one pressuring, Cocquelin can play a simple through-ball to bypass the midfield.
With the midfield so easily bypassed, Clark is forced to come out and challenge and leaves a huge space in the defensive line. Sánchez is poorly positioned and over-commits, easily allowing a pass in to Ramsey in the smaller space in front of the Villa line - Cleverley has lost Ramsey entirely and challenges too late, only succeeding in knocking the ball on to Giroud.
Arsenal work the ball out to the flank and then back in again. In this time Clark has rushed back to the box to cover Giroud (red circle) - but none of the Villa midfielders have come back to cover Ramsey, circled in black.
Ramsey gets off his shot, which Guzan saves. The Villa midfield, marked via the red line, has had precisely no impact on this play whatsoever apart from Cleverley managing to touch the ball on to Giroud.
Here's the entire passage of play in GIF form:
It's terrible - every single one of the Villa midfielders makes horrible individual errors. Cleverley fails to track his man, Delph fails to pressure, Sánchez rashly challenges rather than holding position. Regular poster Wabbit_Season posted his very useful +/- summary of the game and came to the conclusion that Carlos Sanchez was most at fault for the thrashing, but this was a comprehensive failure in the centre of the park.
No midfield, no nothing
With the midfield so inept, the rest of the team inevitably suffered. I posted earlier in the season about Villa's broken 4-3-3, mentioning the issues of a failure to control the flanks, no pressing and no effective defensive screen in the middle of the pitch. We saw every single one of those issues against Arsenal on Sunday. If you can bear it, look at the start of the GIF and you can see Carles Gil utterly lose his man down the right after a few seconds of pressing which were ineffectual because no-one joined in. Arsenal could go through the middle or down the wings at will.
The issues were compounded by Lambert's choice of a high defensive line. This was always risky against an Arsenal side who are wonderful at through-balls from any part of the pitch and had the pace of Walcott to call on. But with no pressing on the ball it became downright suicidal. Okore or Clark consistently came out to claim balls that should have been claimed by the defensive midfielders, only to lose out and have an Arsenal player run in behind them.
In the attack, Benteke waited vainly for balls that never came. Gil made efforts to link up play by dropping deep, as did Weimann on the other side, but this left Villa having to make their way up the entire pitch with no potential runners to go behind Benteke. Unsurprisingly, this led to very little.
This defeat destroyed all the optimism of the FA Cup win over Bournemouth and brought the pressure back on Lambert, with Villa playing into Arsenal's hands.
The original line-up didn't look awful. Richardson and Cleverley were controversial choices, but the shape of the team wouldn't have been fundamentally altered by having Cissokho and Westwood in their place. The high line was also a problem, but had there been pressure in the midfield and at the front, it arguably wouldn´t have been exposed so badly - the blame is with the players there.
The real issue is with the failure to react when it became clear the shape wasn't working. During the entire first half, Arsenal swept through again and again. One of Sánchez or Cleverley, if not both, clearly needed to come off and the team needed two dedicated sitting midfielders, and Weimann and Gil to pull back onto the wings. But no changes were forthcoming, and that led to the humiliation in the second half.
Lambert was facing a difficult day and perhaps felt that even getting one goal would be worth it. But he gambled wrong and the side has now suffered another blow to its confidence.
Adam's Team of the (next) Week
4-3-3 simply hasn't worked this season, leaving far too much space between the lines and a midfield with no real organization. 4-2-3-1 has solved some of those issues before and should be used again. Cissokho for me is more defensively sound than Richardson, and Westwood deserves a spot above Sanchez right now (I still like Sánchez but he needs a little more guidance in the Premier League and Chelsea is not the time for that). Delph looked lost against Arsenal and his energy would be better used further back, with the ability to break forward.
In the attack, Carles Gil is so obviously our best player that it makes sense for me to have him in the middle, helping to dictate play. Weimann was positive in his limited chances against Arsenal and is a hard worker down the right, with a good connection with Hutton - and we all want to see what Sinclair can do. Benteke keeps his position, as ever, for lack of an alternative, but Westwood and Delph should be told to try and find him earlier and get him involved early in the play.
Let me know what you think below! Should Sánchez be dropped? Weimann or Gabby for the counter-attack? Or should we forget the fancy nonsense and go 4-4-2?