Arsenal – Aston Villa: Scriptwriters Shake Up The Title Dramatics (0-2)

Who would blink first in the battle for the summit? Arsenal approached this clash with a favor in their back pocket but could not afford to take their eye off the ball. In the end, the display disappointed the crowd for the second time in five days, casting their charge into jeopardy.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

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Arsenal are back in the big time. Only a few days ago, Bavarian bullies that turfed the club out of the Champions League upon their last entry of the competition left with a draw. The Emirates Stadium, host to a fixture in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in 14 years, takes center stage for the next leg of their domestic drive. Their bid for the Premier League title is another signal that the process has produced rewards. However, the final phase involves the collection of trophies.

Aston Villa’s vision of the season has manifested as the continuity of their work under Unai Emery. From his arrival in the Midlands till the end of May 2023, his outfit earned the fifth most points of all twenty in the league. Now, they sit level with Spurs in the fight for fourth place. The master of management in the Europa League is also halfway to the semi final of the Conference League, holding a 2-1 lead over Lille. Could he create another stir at his old office of employment?

Emery elected to start nine players from the visit of Lille. One of those was Emi Martínez, the first choice goalkeeper, who had joined from Arsenal. He picked the same back four: Lucas Digne, Pau Torres, Diego Carlos, and Ezri Konsa. Douglas Luiz had a suspension, so John McGinn partnered Youri Tielemans in the double pivot. The offense reconfigured. Nicolò Zaniolo and Moussa Diaby came in as the wingers. Morgan Rogers moved into the middle of the offense with Ollie Watkins.

Mikel Arteta rotated three men from his starting eleven in midweek. Oleksandr Zinchenko had come on the left of the back four at half time. He stayed in the side. Jorginho also dropped to the bench, so Declan Rice sat at the base of the midfield. Kai Havertz moved from his role as a central forward into the middle of the park with captain Martin Ødegaard. Leandro Trossard replaced Gabriel Martinelli as the left winger, Gabriel Jesus operated as a central forward, and Bukayo Saka completed the offense.

Ødegaard operates as locksmith

Villa was not dissimilar in their approach off the ball to the Bavarians. They sat in a 4-4-2 medium block. Their players sought to stay narrow and stop red shirts from receiving inside their formation. However, Arsenal had the answers to pick apart their structure in the opening phases of this contest.

20th minute: offensive sequence from Arsenal. White had broken the lines to access Rice.  Ødegaard and him bounced the ball off each other, allowing the captain to rotate deep onto the inside shoulder of Zaniolo. Ødegaard chopped inside onto his left boot and faked a deep pass while Jesus pinned the central defenders inside with his deep movement. Rice instructs him to remain patient, shows again in the gap between Zaniolo and Tielemans, and opens a straight passing lane for Saka’s diagonal run.

The hosts like to construct overloads from the outside to access the center of the pitch. That was easier to do with the behavior in Villa’s block. The two forwards did not shuttle extremely tightly around Rice while Ødegaard was under less strict marking from Tielemans than he had been from Konrad Laimer against Bayern. It was possible to feed longline passes into the feet of Saka to roll inside and advance or for Ødegaard to sit deeper in pockets to break the lines and go past the defensive chain.

Evolution has rendered the left of the offense less pivotal to their plays in the possession phase than last year. But on this occasion, there were also lively scenarios here. Havertz had experienced tight marking from McGinn inside the block. Nevertheless, he threatened the chain with underlaps for Trossard and deep runs to probe the offside line, striking twice on goal in the first fifteen minutes.

Another case of unfulfilled potential

Two of Arsenal’s other best openings in the first half hour situated on the right, where they target their pressure. They attacked the buildup in their usual asymmetric 4-2-3-1 system. Ødegaard jumped to close down Torres in the first line of the pressure, sitting next to Jesus in a lower block. Saka was patient to bait passes outside to Digne, and the rest of their teammates desired to dominate duels.

At the start, this strategy was mainly a success. Ødegaard’s pressure on Torres repeatedly pushed him to the outside, where he could not connect with Zaniolo and turned over the ball. The execution in the transition from these sequences was not always optimal. Some sequences could have finished with an extra pass to a teammate on the edge of the box rather than a shot to exploit the overload. Other sequences involved passes to Saka running off Digne, but the weight sent him wide of the mark.

26th minute: offensive transition from Arsenal. Diaby dribbled into bodies from the recovery of the ball at a set-piece, allowing Arsenal to transition. Zinchenko and Saka converged on the winger, then Trossard drove to the outside. He chopped backward and pushed a pass inside to Zinchenko. Jesus occupies Digne on his inside shoulder, releasing Saka once more. However, Zinchenko overhits his pass for Saka’s run; the winger scrambles to keep the ball on the pitch and Villa can escape pressure. 

Villa began to string together longer phases on the ball from the 20th minute onwards. Watkins had worked the last line with his running, and the visitors squeezed the margins to push passes between the lines for Zaniolo or Rogers. But the first half ended with more wasteful moments from the hosts. Martínez denied Trossard from point blank range, Saka’s header and shot missed the target, and Jesus was late to dart across the near post. Would the visitors make their opponents pay for their profligacy?

Energy exhausted

The start of the second half signaled a shift in momentum. Villa were still accessing more openings in the middle of Arsenal’s 4-4-2 shape. However, the hosts also struggled to create the same cycle of dominance as they had done before the break to fix Villa deep in their low block with patience.

That dynamic placed extra stress on the work of the players off the ball. In this context, Villa asserted themselves in duels. Zinchenko’s propensity to play with too much risk nearly cost his club on the hour mark when a turnover to Tielemans from a corner left the midfielder to wrap a shot onto the inside of the post. Ben White had picked up a yellow card and Zaniolo shrugged him off several times before his substitution in place of Takehiro Tomiyasu. Arteta’s men required a reload of energy.

65th minute: offensive sequence from Aston Villa. Zaniolo shifted with White inside the block, holding off the right back and juggling the ball before passing it to Rogers. Watkins drifted wider, isolating himself against Saliba, and sprints in behind the defense to try to latch onto Rogers’ through ball. Saliba’s slide tackle mops up the danger, but Villa continue to pin Arsenal into their half of the field.

He went for two double substitutions. In the 67th minute, Martinelli entered the fray with Tomiyasu, taking the place of Trossard. Twelve minutes later, Jesus made way for Jorginho. Rice moved forward in the midfield, and Ødegaard, who had looked the most energetic, came off for Emile Smith Rowe. Ultimately, at that stage, Arteta was fighting against the tide for control and could not wrestle it back.

Villans vandalize the party plans

The knockout blow landed in the 83rd minute. Tielemans and Digne circulated the ball from a corner around to Moreno, whose delivery met Tomiyasu’s head. The guests gathered the clearance. McGinn broke the lines to feed Moreno, who slipped a ball for Digne through the left channel. The fullback found a crossing angle to the near post, where David Raya hesitated. Gabriel and Saliba had gone to this zone with Torres. All alone at the far post was Bailey to roll an effort into the back of the net.

Arsenal attacked with urgency— and too little calmness. Tielemans hooked away the danger from a set-piece at the other end of the field. Zinchenko plucked the ball out of the sky, and Jorginho forced a pass into the path of Tielemans. He clipped the ball beyond the halfway line. Watkins was on his way against Smith-Rowe as the sole shield for the defense. He held off the midfielder, dribbled deep into the box, and as Raya advanced to engage, the forward lifted the ball over the line to double the lead.

Two and a half minutes sucked the soul out of the stadium. Arteta’s classic calling card in such a situation reappeared. Eddie Nketiah acted as a second striker next to Havertz, while Martinelli and Saka offered the width. Zinchenko’s afternoon of action was over, and only three men filled in at the base of the offensive structure. However, the turnaround was not possible. Rice shanked a strike far off target in injury time: it was the only effort the hosts could manufacture before the final whistle.


The campaign is hanging in the balance for Arsenal. They now sit two points adrift of the reigning champions, having forsaken the opportunity to go back to the top of the table after Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at home to Crystal Palace. The concession of four goals in the last week, only one less than their record from their first 13 fixtures in the new year, brings back questions about the mental fortitude of the camp. But if Arteta’s men let the talk get in their heads, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It was an away day for Aston Villa to remember. The foundations were there against City at the start of this month to show how Emery can engineer a struggle for the top teams in the division. On this occasion, he praised the execution of fine details in the defense and the growing imposition of control of possession as time wore on. The triumph takes the team three points in front of Spurs, whom they were only leading in the goal difference department. It is full steam ahead for France on Thursday.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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