We wanted to know how Aston Villa could beat Arsenal tomorrow, so we decided to go right to the source. Aidan Gibson is the tactics expert over at SB Nation's Arsenal blog The Short Fuse, and here's his gameplan for Tim Sherwood:
The difference between Arsenal before New Year's Day and after New Year's Day could not be starker: on January 1, Arsenal lost 2-0 to Southampton. It was their fifth loss in the Premier League, and seventh loss in all competitions. Afterwards, until the end of the Premier League season, Arsenal would only lose two more times in the league, and once, disastrously, in the Champions League. Interestingly, after Arsenal shaped up, two of their three losses were at the Emirates Stadium, with only the disappointing North London Derby an away loss. If Aston Villa are to beat Arsenal on Saturday, they'll likely follow one of the following patterns: sitting back in a solid defensive shape, denying Arsenal space in the final third or pressing Arsenal in the midfield, hurting the ability of Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla to get on the ball and create. In both situations, the job for Villa will be to deny Arsenal space; either behind, or in the middle.
Such a job will be made if Arsène Wenger, if expected, starts Aaron Ramsey on the right-hand side. The inclusion of Ramsey on the right is not a great tactical stroke; rather, it is Wenger trying to shoehorn his best players into the side while acknowledging that Francis Coqeulin is incapable of passing the ball under any sort of pressure, and also incapable of setting the tempo; hence, Santi Cazorla will likely continue his central midfield role from the past few months. With Ramsey on the right, Arsenal don't use the width as well as they should, relying on Héctor Bellerín to provide the outlet on the right flank. Furthermore, it doesn't suit Ramsey as much, and the runs he makes from the right are different to his off-the ball runs in central midfield. Those runs from central midfield are vital when facing a deep defence, because it forces midfield runners who may not be so adept at tracking to track. It's quite easy to defend when everything is in front of you, but if Ramsey makes a run and loses his midfield man, and forces a centre back to turn, space is created.
Those runs are also vital for supporting Olivier Giroud. Assuming the big Frenchman starts, and it is likely that he will even with Theo Walcott's hat trick last weekend, Aston Villa's job will be to crowd him out, and deny him the ability to play quick one-twos and flicks. Vlaar and Clark will both set themselves close to Giroud and look to make it harder for Arsenal to play beyond him. That could be an argument to start Theo Walcott, but while his movement is very good, and can stretch defences, if Arsenal are faced by a deep block and have to go wide, Walcott doesn't offer much of a threat as a centre forward.
The other task for Villa, if they play in a deep block, will be to isolate Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean has an an excellent first season, but his game has been bogged down in recent weeks by predictable movement and then losing possession too easily. He rarely goes on the outside of his right back, which means teams are happy to let him come inside with the knowledge that they can surround him and force him to turnover the ball, as he rarely releases early enough to get away from such pressure.
Villa could also set about pressing Arsenal and playing with a high line, much as Manchester United did two weekends ago. In the first half, Arsenal failed to create a shot, and were unable to control possession or get Mesut Özil into the match. The difficult task there, though, is that Villa have to be diligent in following runners and pressing their man; otherwise, a scenario happens like the match in January, where Arsenal were able to play behind Villa's high line again and again, and won 5-0. That was, of course, a different manager, and Villa were in a different situation at the time, but in most situations, it is only teams with well-defined pressing units that do well against Arsenal: Pochettino's Tottenham, Klopp's Dortmund, Southampton, and last-season's Liverpool all had a strong pressing unit and forced Arsenal's game to suffer. Arsenal are even less adept at dealing with pressure with Mikel Arteta, and if Villa pull it off, they could control the match in a similar way to United two weeks ago. It's a high-reward, but also comes with a high-risk, and the likelihood is that Aston Villa will set out to defend similarly to the two teams that have caused Arsenal the most pain this season: Monaco and Swansea.
Thanks to Aidan for taking the time to help. Hopefully Tim Sherwood is reading!
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