Can the Villans stun the Gunners and grab three points to heap uncertainty on an Arsenal team undergoing a transition?
The story so far
Villa bounced back and displayed their mettle in a tough home encounter with West Ham. The Hammers lost a man halfway through the second half and changed their gameplan to deal with Villa. Nerves became the enemy of the Villa - as they frustrated with a damp squib when a moment of magic was needed.
Still, it was a resolute performance against a strong attack-minded team - and it was a perfect test of Villa’s abilities against a talented Premier League side. The 0-0 result proved that Aston Villa can compete in this league, even without a victory.
Villa will now take on Arsenal, and will be backed by their loyal away following as they attempt to turn the screws on a talented side that now finds itself under pressure.
Who are ya?
The name Arsenal should strike fear into Villa fans worldwide. Simply put, Aston Villa haven’t enjoyed a good match against the north Londoners in a long while. You’ll have to recall Gabby Agbonlahor, Antonio Luna, Olof Mellberg and more to consider the last time Villa threatened Arsenal. In the new modern era of football (marked at about 2015), Villa haven’t been able to question Arsenal. At all.
The rest, however, have been able to question Arsenal - all too often.
The Gunners offered nothing against Liverpool, and didn’t impress against Newcastle. Watford bounced back to rip at their complacency. Arsenal are an impressive team, but only from an external perspective.
There is something eerily Lynchian about Arsenal. On the surface, and to an outsider, everything is fine. League position, cup finals, elite striker, The cups of coffee, the cafe breakfast, the rosy London accent cheerily emerging from reddened cheeks and the flying red scarves before the match - it’s good and nobody has any reason to complain.
Step inside the dream for a second though. The roses are dying, the sun sets at night, people are speaking backwards. All is not well, at all. We operated on the assumption that it was and now we are stuck in a world we cannot understand. The world of Arsenal FC.
Where there have been cup finals, there have been ruthless thrashings. Where philosophy existed, relentless tinkering and gameplans fill the void. This is a club in transition, and from the outside it may look a dream. The internal workings of that dream though, are creepy, unsettling and no fun at all. Arsenal lack identity - and they aren’t able to chase the success craved so desperately by an outspoken and relentless fanbase.
Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal (and likely the time of his successor, and their successor after that) is going to be defined as transitional period.
That’s not particularly unfair on the Spaniard though, considering that he is following Arsene Wenger - the man who in a twenty-year reign at the club pretty much wrote the book for modern Arsenal. A tough act to follow, and that cliche has never existed in a more deserving fashion. Nobody is following Arsene Wenger.
Emery exists as a staunch tactician - one that wants his teams to play well with no pre-defined philosophy. He’s not going to enslave himself to an idea - like his counterparts. Unai wants to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and commit his ‘style’ to individual plans for each team.
However, a coach must find the balance between ‘no instruction’ and ‘over instruction’ - a confusing tactical plan doesn’t allow flexibility - nor for the instinct needed to adapt when the gamestate demands it. Arsenal aren’t always in touch, and Emery will need to find his balance.
One to watch
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang exists as the video game striker. The man capable of anything, seemingly acting on the whim of divine and unseen input. If there is an edge to Arsenal, it is because Aubameyang is providing it. Truth be told, if we consider the attack of Arsenal to be a productive attack - that’s going to be down to the efforts of PEA.
Aubameyang is Arsenal’s top goalscorer, and their xG leader. If they score, it’s because of something he has done. With pace to burn and an eye for goal, there is no shame in conceding to Aubameyang, because he’s going to get the best of a lot of defenders this season.
What about the Villa?
Again, Villa might fancy a point here (or more, if they are looking at the game tape of Arsenal’s last match against a Watford side who have just been clipped by Manchester City). There’s no reason as to why not. Arsenal haven’t started off in an impressive manner and we know that anything can happen in football. Why not Villa?
It’s a big opportunity for Villa, and it’s another free hit. Dean Smith should feel that his side can gun at Arsenal without repercussion as on paper, many might be writing his Villa off. That’s normal when a newly-promoted side turns out against a top-six club.
However, we need to consider Aston Villa’s defence - because Aston Villa’s back four have impressed over the past few games, and will be the reason that the Villa remain competitive going forward.
In the scatter graph above, produced by the excellent Experimental361, we can see that Aston Villa head the graph and fall into the ‘competent but busy’ category when ‘defensive effectiveness’ is highlighted. This shows that Aston Villa, more than most teams, are capable of absorbing shots. Villa are giving away around 18 shots a game, but are capable of accepting 15 before a goal is scored. Teams aren’t simply being wasteful against the Villa either - Tyrone Mings is the league leader in shots blocked per 90 minutes and Tom Heaton in goal is a superb shot-stopper. A well-organised defence like Villa’s is able to restrict shooting space in the box and act on reflex, there is plenty of reason to have faith in that.
If Villa can control games, and hold the ball well, they will pick up points and slide into the ‘formidable’ section. The defence is THAT good.
It’s just a shame about the attack.
The scatter above shows that while Villa are close to the median, their defence is keeping them from drifting away from the pack. For the shots that Villa face, vs their xG allowed per game, Villa are doing quite well at the back. It’s rare that a team outside of the top four is the complete package, but Villa need to create quality chances more often and drag themselves towards the left of this graph without sacrificing their defensive capabilities.
The plaudits, and rightly so, will fall onto Villa’s back four which should remain unchanged for the visit to Arsenal.
Villa’s attack will need galvanising and the returning Trezeguet should assist with that. The Egyptian is second to Wesley in xG, and offers a more direct threat than Jota or Ahmed Elmohamady. His return will be a small blessing to a Villa side in need of performances from the wing. Wesley will start up top and will be expected to lead the press.
Jack Grealish and John McGinn will keep their places while Marvelous Nakamba will look to impress after a decent debut in the holding role. Björn Engels and Tyrone Mings will have a game on their hands, but will both start as Villa’s best defenders.
This game, largely, will be about an upstart defence taking on an impressive offence.
For Villa, stopping Aubameyang is a side-goal. Nobody can really stop an elite player like him. Mings and Engels will try, and there is some hope for AVFC. Aston Villa managed to keep Sebastien Haller quiet on Monday, and that should improve their confidence. Understat have Haller at 3.21 xG while Aubameyang has racked up 2.53 xG. Villa have shown that they will be a challenge for Aubameyang, but it really is a matter of time. If they can hold tight for 90 minutes, then there will be no better proof of Villa’s defensive credentials without being typically ‘defensive’.
Villa’s main goal will be taking advantage of an Arsenal side that tries to be ‘defensive’ without having any interest at all in being ‘defensive.’ Simply deploying a low-block doesn’t make a team defensive, controlling a game well, does. Holding onto the ball, playing out from the back, avoiding errors - these are the hallmarks of a ‘defensive’ team in 2019. Arsenal cannot do this, and last week’s game is the highlight of that.
We’ll focus on goal kicks here. Arsenal have enjoyed using short goal kicks since the relaxing of the ‘goal kick’ rule. Since goalkeepers can now play the ball within the box, Arsenal have allowed Bernd Leno and his defenders to liberally restart play with a short goal kick regardless of opposition intent. With Arsenal 2-0 up and facing a high press, Leno and his defenders restarted play with a short goal-kick.
This created a pressing trigger for Watford, who now outnumbered Arsenal in the box. Watford where able to win the ball after an aborted pass and create a shooting opportunity for Tom Cleverley who had the goal before him, and no pressure.
The Hornets swarmed, the box was overloaded, Cleverley scored, and Watford ruined Emery’s plan - which had worked up until this point. Arsenal could still play it short, and didn’t have to pass it within the box under a press, but they passed it within the box, limited the passing range for the defender and succumbed to pressure.
The worst thing about mistakes? The mistake that you’ll make trying to impress after the earlier error. Here, David Luiz commits himself to a challenge he knows he cannot make - because he will not allow Arsenal to concede another poor goal on his watch after the earlier calamity at the back.
Sometimes, you don’t make errors as an individual, you make them as a unit. Arsenal’s goal kick was proof enough of that. Here, we have a mixture of both. Luiz overcommits, but he probably does it because he can’t trust anyone but himself (funnily enough, nobody else can trust him). He doesn’t have anyone from the midfield aiding him, and he’s having to point out another attacker to a defender - at the same time as his challenge. He gives away the penalty here and Watford bury it. It’s a mistake made and Luiz likely won’t learn from this. Offering the weaker shooting opportunity is certainly better than giving away the penalty, but a rush of blood to the head is the decider. 2-2, and out of nothing more than a botched goal kick to flip the game state upon its head.
Back to the goal kick. Pressing isn’t necessarily about winning the ball. It’s about forcing errors, or applying the pressure for unforced errors to occur. It’s about occupying headspace. If Arsenal start to play softly with the ball from the back, Aston Villa should consider it as a pressing trigger and aim to win the ball in the box, or push the line against Aubameyang to contain the pitch by winning an aerial duel.
Arsenal have faced more shots (96) than any team in the top five European Leagues and that stat, unlike Villa, is entirely their fault. There is no reason, at all for Arsenal to be succumbing to that number of shots, because it will only take small moments of luck for teams to put away the Gunners. You cannot allow that amount of shots - and fail to organise a defensive structure - and expect to win games. Villa should shoot often, because if there is a downfall to this Arsenal side, it will more than likely be wearing the red and white of the Gunners. You cannot claim to be ‘defensive’ and suck up ninety-six shots. Emery must find his balance, because his structure - and his defenders - have been their own worst enemy.
Will Arsenal scored? It’s highly likely. Will Arsenal concede as a result of their own errors? It’s just as likely. Villa should run at them, because anything could happen.
Again, it’ll be tough for Villa - but they will be itching to prove themselves and face an Arsenal side that looks to be in turmoil.
2-1 to Aston Villa.