Aston Villa played out a tough ninety minute fixture against a resolute Arsenal side in a match that had almost everything - bar three points for the Villa. Here are 11 talking points to consider in the wake of Villa’s 3-2 loss to Arsenal.
1. Villa could only attack because Arsenal allowed them to do so
The above is SofaScore’s ‘Attacking Momentum’ graph that highlights offensive pressure during a particular stage during the game. Villa could boast about three periods of sustained pressure, in bursts, around Arsenal’s general dominance. This is expected, really - and it pretty much boasts the reality of the game. It was all Arsenal - in the good and the bad. Villa scored because Arsenal lapsed and Arsenal scored because they poured on the pressure. During the game, it felt differently from a Villa perspective - but hindsight is beneficial here. Villa weren’t all that strong, and the influence on the game - predominantly - came from Arsenal.
Understat’s xG timeline for the match shows that Arsenal were able to effectively respond to any Villa threat in terms of chances created.
There are two ways in which we can take this graph at face value. We can say that Arsenal were ‘hanging on’ or that Arsenal were able to respond well to Aston Villa. Judging from the fact that the Gunners were down to ten men, and that they were able to lean into Villa late on, I believe it is fair to go with the latter.
2. Aston Villa created - and scored
The big talking point heading into this game for Aston Villa fans was the ability to convert chances. The scoreline shows that the Villa were able to score on two occasions, in two chances that racked up relatively high xG. In the Understat model, McGinn’s effort was worth 0.39 xG, while Wesley’s is valued at 0.57 xG. It’s a better xG vs actual goal output for Aston Villa and long may it continue. Villa have been able to create decent chances for a while now, and this match proved that they can convert.
They do need to create more though. In terms of pure xG, Villa are amongst the worst creators in the league. That will not balance out well.
3. The defence is sound, yet shaken
Aston Villa’s defence hasn’t been much of a concern - and has handled itself marvellously thus far. The important thing with this back-four is that they can soak up the shots. For a team in Aston Villa’s position, that is a valued attribute.
However, conceding a goal is only a matter of time. If you take shots, you will concede - it’s a given and no team can escape that. Villa absorbed 6 shots on target, conceding three goals - and that’s close to their worst performance yet when judged solely on that value.
The defence will be shaken, but it has shown it’s value - and it was only a few uncharacteristic errors from Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels that allowed Arsenal in. This should not happen often, and if it is to happen, it should only occur in a game such as this - where Aston Villa are clearly the weaker team.
4. Elite players exist to do elite things
When a player lines up over the set-piece that can win a game, it becomes all about themselves and their ability to wrap their ego around the boot and drive the ball into the goal. You want the elite performer to step forth when the narrative demands it and bury the other team.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had the opportunity to do just that as his sweetly taken free-kick dispatched Aston Villa and ended the game. That’s what elite players do.
Their ability to convert low xG chances is what sets them apart, and why teams buy them. They can make games about themselves and their fantastic abilities. On their day, there is no stopping them. Aubameyang is no different and as the standout player in the Arsenal team, he took the game into his grasp when the opportunity arose and scored.
He didn’t have much going for him in open-play, but it didn’t matter. One kick was all he needed.
5. Arsenal’s defence is a worry
Consider point one - the idea that Villa only got into this game because Arsenal allowed them to do so. Now consider Villa’s first goal, where John McGinn burst through into the box, unmarked. Now, think about the second, where Jack Grealish flitted into the box to find Wesley.
Considering this makes me slightly uneasy - because it makes me question Villa’s chances. How much of Villa’s attacking success came because Arsenal were bad at defending?
Arsenal did not want any part of McGinn’s goal, and allowed him a cavernous attacking route to finish. Arsenal did not want much to do with Wesley, who was allowed a tap in. Thankfully for the Gunners, they shoved the momentum at Villa in the second half and allowed themselves some breathing room leaving Villa to ponder ‘what could’ve been.’
6. Grealish had his moment
Jack Grealish has come in for plenty of criticism so far this season as fans expect him to run the show game-in and game-out.
He’s doing a good job of it, though, and considering the step-up in player quality on a game-by-game basis, he’s got plenty to be proud of, and nothing to this point beats his assist for Wesley.
Seconds after Arsenal’s initial equaliser, Grealish burst forth to become the black hole. He sucked Arsenal players into his orbit before driving a lateral ball through to Wesley. This gift allowed the Brazilian to tap in and claim his second Villa goal, but it was all about Jack.
His showcase of attacking intent was superb, and it shows that players of his ability will keep Villa in games. What’s more, we finally have tangible proof to shove towards his doubters to prove that Grealish can be effective in the Premier League.
As if there was any doubt.
7. VAR (and the rulebook) sucks
Conor Hourihane will be feeling a bit disenchanted with the state of English officiating after his shot cannoned off the arm of Sokratis and out of play in the dying moments of the match. Plenty will say that he should’ve earned a penalty for his team.
Hourihane, and Aston Villa, have become victims of the ‘handball rule’ - and not it’s execution, but the general stodginess of the rule. Handball, you see, isn’t just the ball hitting the hand - the rule relies on plenty of context to define what is a fouling handball and what isn’t.
It’s exhausting - and context is thrown out of the window entirely when a goal is created with the hand, but it isn’t if a goal is saved with the ‘hand’.
It’s an impossible job for the referee, as they have to apply context to the defensive handball and judge, in seconds, if it’s a handball or not as the ball hitting the hand isn’t always handball.
Thankfully, they have an assistant referee situated in a third-party location who can use camera angles to assess fouls. This is VAR or Video Assistant Referee - and it can intervene to reverse ‘clear and obvious errors’ and assist the Referee in checking for fouls in the buildup to a goal. As stated, it can reverse referee decisions, except that it doesn’t and has failed to do so in two of the last three Aston Villa matches.
VAR, and the rulebook, do not allow for any sort of sporting fairness if that sporting fairness contradicts the rules, which have heightened the power and authority of the referee. VAR did not overturn Sokratis’ handball, when it was the use of his limb to stop a goalbound shot, and it did not allow Henri Lansbury’s goal after Kevin Friend flagged for a dive that did not exist.
Simply put, VAR only now exists to enforce the offside rule with no margin of error, and it’s use to the current rules of the game is moot. It has become the talking point of the Premier League and it cannot co-exist with the current rules of football, which suck just as much as VAR does. The rules do not make sense, so VAR cannot either.
8. Villa can play one way, and it’s tiring
There’s a fallacy that Villa sat back against Arsenal - they didn’t. Arsenal enforced a high-line, controlled the ball and defended it in the middle. Villa were rooted into their own half and looked for energy down the flanks - they played it wide and were stopped. Villa kept to their high-tempo pressing game, and what we saw in the match wasn’t a collapse of Villa - but the natural degradation of their playing style because of tired legs. Effort is killing Aston Villa, and trying too hard is becoming their downfall - Dean Smith’s side do need to learn that they can rest on the ball and lower the tempo to create the room to push forward, but that cannot happen if you are treating every game event as an opportunity to rush the ball carrier in a gung-ho fashion.
9. More subs, please!
The argument is not that Conor Hourihane and Henri Lansbury would’ve won the game for Villa if brought on earlier, it’s that the main negative of the game - the tired legs - would’ve been removed if they had been brought on earlier. Against West Ham, the changes came too late and Villa suffered when they could’ve afforded to give Douglas Luiz and Keinan Davis more time to affect change from the bench.
The same situation exists here. The fresh players came on too late and they didn’t have the time or space needed to change the match. There’s no shame in taking John McGinn and Jack Grealish out for a rest if the situation demands it, either.
10. We should stop second-guessing Dean Smith
Sports fans always think they know best - this is true of every supporter of every sports team to have ever existed and we are no different. We can offer out analysis and critiques, but I do ask that we be thoughtful and intelligent when doing so.
Dean Smith has his reasons for his decisions, and I have no reason to doubt him right now. His team have tried to play on the front foot, they have played stoically and creatively and have given a much better impression of themselves than the last few Villa sides to have played in the Premier League.
The issue for us is this - when we dole out our anger about the match, it only takes from the final whistle to the uploading of Dean Smith’s post-match presser to realise that he himself has the same critiques of the side as we do. We know the score and so does he - but enforcing your ideas into a fluid game of sport via the medium of 11 different men is a difficult task.
However, he might have eased his own concerns with earlier substitutions. That's akin to crying over spilled milk at this point.
Give it time, Villa are giving a decent account of themselves and results might pick up - but we need to adjust our expectations once more.
11. Villa need to make their advantages count
For the past two matches, Villa have played about seventy minutes with an extra player due to red card appearances against West Ham United and Arsenal. During this period, Villa have scored once and conceded three times.
Look, you have no right to simply expect a team to roll over when they lose a player - but that isn’t anywhere close to being acceptable. Villa should’ve gained two points from these past two games, but leave with one and a bagful of disappointment. Onto Burnley.