Certainly a Friday night under the lights to forget for Aston Villa.
Here are the three points that I deem significant in a disappointing 3-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium.
An unchanged side. Why?
After losing two on the trot and unconvincing performances, it is clear that something isn’t working. Many Villa fans, myself included, put it down to the system that has been in place for the last run of games, highlighting specifically it’s imbalance in regards to expansive football.
Dean Smith is clearly eager to make the recent 3-5-2 formation work. But it isn't. With the exception of a half, or game or two. So why stick with the system that wasn’t successful at Tottenham and remained in the collapse at home to Wolves last week? Surely you change a losing side? This Arsenal game would surely be make or break.
The head coach has spoken profusely about how he believes the attacking duo of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings will eventually come good, but we are still yet to see any sign of a formidable partnership forming. Both players have struggled to get involved in the previous fixtures, with long ball, after long ball pumped up to the pair. Not the service they want. Is the two up top the way forward?
Over the years, the use of ‘attacking fullbacks’ has become incredibly popular, and many top teams in the modern era of football play with these types of players roaming their wide areas. This role has a big part to play in a 3-5-2 system as they are predominantly the team’s only source of wide play, so are critical when both attacking and defending. Therefore, the influence of Matty Cash and Matt Targett in this Villa setup is immense, and their performances will almost always be an indicator for how the game will go.
Whilst having a fantastic month of September, Cash has had a quiet few games since, and Targett has struggled all season long. Again, for me, this is a sign to retract the use of this formation, and go back to the flat defensive four that served us so well last season, and helped keep 15 clean sheets in the league.
This opens up the opportunity for the use of wingers, a part of the squad that Villa have a lot of quality in. I believe making use of these talents (once all fit) will only do good this campaign. Players such as Leon Bailey, who returned to the match-day squad for this one, will have a huge part to play for the claret and blue side. Some Villans wished the former Leverkusen man would start, but he is still lacking enough match fitness that will see him last the 90 minutes.
Many Villa fans were left scratching their heads pre-match after seeing the team indifferent to the last. Tuanzebe the name that was questioned most after a uninspiring start to his third spell at the club. The dropping of his centre-back teammate, Kortney Hause, left the AVFC faithful bewildered, and expected his return to the side if the 3-5-2 remained. The rest of the team you could say picked itself with the setup used, and players fit and available.
Many questions were asked of the decisions made by Dean Smith before this game, but would his persistence with the 3-5-2 prove his know-how? And could he get the better of Mikel Arteta for the fourth time in a row? Let us find out...
A first-half to forget
As far as halves of football go, that is right down there.
Villa started particularly unsteady with Ollie Watkins picking up a yellow card just 30 seconds into the game for kicking out at Brazilian defender Gabriel. This ultimately set the tone for the remainder of the opening sequence, as the side never appeared to settle down and get a proper grip of the game.
Albeit the Gunners came out quite the opposite; raring to go and seemingly confident on and off the ball. The front four of Lacazette, Aubameyang, Smith-Rowe and Saka were excellent in their press, and caused the Villa defense to commit a number of cheap mistakes which led to two early chances for Saka and left-back Nuno Tavares.
Villa were sat unusually deep, and there were very few signs of a press of their own, as time and time again, Arsenal were able to break the lines and create chances.
We looked nervous. Scared almost. Has the return of fans had a part to play? Since the reopening of the stadiums, the Villans’ away form has dipped significantly. I feel that this isn’t coincidental and there is an added degree of intimidation and pressure to perform with fans back in the grounds.
The hesitant midlands side were finally punished on the 23 minute mark, as Thomas Partey opened his account with a free header past the former Gooner, Emi Martinez. A goal that was deservedly conceded was met with arguments in the Villa ranks, where teammates were left angry with John McGinn due to his lack of attempt to clear the ball for the opener.
The game continued how it started, with the claret and blue side sloppy and slow to every second ball, and the red and whites dominant in possesion. This pattern of play led to another golden chance, this time for Saka, but his first-time effort was saved well by Argentina’s number one goalkeeper.
As McGinn and Mings both picked up bookings, it really did look like it was going to be a long and dismal night for Aston Villa. The fans’ only glimpse of a chance came around the 40th minute, where Matty Cash played Emi Buendia in down the right, only for his cross to be easily dealt with by Ramsdale. The Argentinian struggled to get on the ball all night, and was without a doubt bettered by midfield competition Lokonga and Partey.
Whilst things did not look like improving, going in at the break down by a single goal, was not necessarily the end of the world. Cue VAR.
In an incident on the stroke of half-time, Matt Targett swiped his left leg at the ball in attempt to clear from danger. Lacazette got himself in between and ‘screamed bloody murder’ as he felt he was fouled.
At the time, referee Craig Pawson waved play on and upon blowing his whistle, most players, and the majority of the stadium in fact thought he was signalling for the end of the half, however, the official was indicating that the team at Stockley Park were asking him to take a second look at the challenge.
After a few moments, he emerged back onto the pitch and pointed to the spot. Targett was furious, and left pointlessly pleading his case. As Aubameyang was handed the ball, the mind games of Emi Martinez began. We have seen previously in the league and in the Copa America, the shot-stopper has attained quite the reputation for his penalty-preventing tricks. Could he execute them to perfection here?
After some time, the Arsenal captain eventually stepped up and...
But the away end’s celebrations were short-lived, as the number 10 was able to convert from the parried rebound. Martinez sinks to the floor in self-exasperation, and is quickly brought back to his feet by Tuanzebe and captain Mings. The goal was unquestionably unavoidable, and the 29 year-old could do no more after a fine stop.
This happened to be the last action of the half, much to the delight of Dean Smith and the rest of the Villa team, after a truly toothless opening display. The former Brentford-boss would have had plenty to discuss during the stoppage.
Zero goal attempts in 45 minutes of football. No matter what the team, or the opponent, that is a very worrying statistic. Around 100 million pounds worth of attacking resources at our disposal and not a single shot at goal in three-quarters of an hour of football. One of the worse halves of football I have seen from any side in a while.
A changed second-half and Jacob Ramsey’s first Villa goal!
A system change at half-time was needed, and Smith did not hesitate to do so. Leon Bailey made his way onto the field for the second half as he returned to the side after being out since the Everton victory at Villa Park. Tuanzebe was the man that made way for the Jamaican, indicating we’d play a 4-2-3-1, in an attempt to salvage anything back from what had been below-par showing thus far.
The alteration seemed to have helped as Watkins, now on the wing, finds space down the left and has his side’s first couple of attempts of the game. This brought about cheers of encouragement from the nearby away fans, who finally had something to embrace over.
The cheers did not last long though, as soon after, Arsenal found themselves on the break and thanks to a clever ball through from Aubameyang, summer target Emile Smith-Rowe found himself bearing down on goal. The number 10 made no mistake with a little help from the outstretched leg of Tyrone Mings, the ball was in the back of the net for 3-0. No way back.
The home team continued to surge forward and mount counter-attacks on their opponents, as they looked to inflict further damage to a rather jaded group of players. As Targett gets booked on the hour mark for raking down Bukayo Saka, this took the tally up to four for Villa names in the referee’s book, showing just how physically inept and outclassed we had been today.
Buendia is presented with a good chance moments later, after a smart pass through from Targett. But the attacking midfielder could not convert as Gabriel slides in and clears his attempt. Viewers at home were presented with a visual of Buendia with his head in his hands; quite a fitting sight, that summed up today’s display.
This marked the end of Buendia’s night, who was replaced by Jacob Ramsey. A player some deem unlucky not to have started the last couple of games after making a good start to the campaign.
Arsenal came at the back four of Villa once again, this time Aubameyang is kept out with a diving save from Martinez. There was still no sign of an efficient press from the visitors, a surprise to many after seeing what this did in the home side’s previous fixture against Crystal Palace, where Benteke and Edouard found themselves on the scoresheet from chances created by pressuring Ben White and co.
A man who had been quiet all game, was John McGinn. After stating in the week, that he was “probably in the form of my life”, the Scotsman was proving quite the opposite here. Poor ball retention and misplaced passes were a staple in the vice captain’s performance throughout.
That being said, Villa had started to see more of the ball in the Arsenal half, mainly down the right, with substitutes Leon Bailey and Jacob Ramsey in the thick of the action, and looking the most likely to help their side back into the match.
That goal would eventually come for the away side after 82 minutes. And what a beauty it was! The pair mentioned above combined, with Ramsey scoring his first Premier League goal. Bailey worked it well on the edge of the Arsenal box, and teed up the youngster who sent an inch-perfect curler into the top corner. No chance for ‘keeper Ramsdale.
With 10 minutes to go, surely Villa couldn’t stage a comeback? If last week’s result to Wolves was anything to go by, anything is possible.
Ollie Watkins is presented with a superb opportunity for 3-2, but he cannot capitalise on a ball into the box from a Matty Cash long throw. Agonising for the number 11. It wasn’t going his way today.
As the sub-header states - it was a changed second half. Villa definitely looked better. But were still easily second-best in this contest. Ramsey misses an opportunity for his brace on the stroke of full-time, and Leon Bailey sent a free-kick just over the bar for the last kick of the game.
These two had really made a difference when they respectively made their way onto the field, and I believe they have both done enough to warrant starts against West Ham next Sunday.
The first half demonstrated how insufficient the 3-5-2 is, and many fans will hope this sparks the end of that system. The expectation now is to start with a 4-2-3-1 against the Hammers which Dean Smith and his team will have nine days to prepare for. They certainly have a lot to discuss and work on in the lead up to that one.
A reaction is demanded from Villa fans, as suspicion on Smith’s job starts to grow. Can he take us any further? Does he need some more time after a disjointed start? The next few games will be telling, and I think could be critical for the Head Coach.