Arsenal – Aston Villa: Villa Shape Creates Arsenal Playground (3-1)

With both team’s flirting with midtable mediocrity, three points were important to claw towards expectation, which would leave the other red-faced. Arsenal exposed Aston Villa’s structural issues for all to see, a first-half rout enough to seal a big win.  

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

A quarter way through the Premier League season, one can argue that both Arsenal and Aston Villa have yet to meet anticipation.

A traumatic August was followed by a calm September, but this isn’t a story that is too dissimilar for Arsenal. A convincing win in the North London derby was followed by two draws, to keep them in the bottom half of the standings. Mikel Arteta is yet to escape the inconsistencies of last season, but at least his team’s recruitment has brought in more appropriate profiles to reflect his ideas for them.

Villa sold their star man and replaced him with three attacking players to bolster their front line. Leon Bailey, Emi Buendía and Danny Ings are all top players, but adopting a system that benefits all have proven to be difficult. Dean Smith has recently switched to a back three to accommodate both Ings and Ollie Watkins upfront, but Villa needs to find a structure before hopes of European nights truly diminish.

Mikel Arteta made three changes, to the team that drew to Crystal Palace. Nuno Tavares replaced Kieran Tierney in the left-back position, whilst Albert Sambi Lokonga came in for Martin Ødegaard. Alexandre Lacazette made his first league start since April, as he came in for Nicolas Pépé.

Dean Smith kept his team unchanged, from their 3-2 defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Matty Cash started in the right wing-back role, despite being a doubt, whilst Leon Bailey started on the bench, having recovered from a thigh injury.

 How Arsenal pinned Villa deep

Villa intended to press high on Arsenal’s standard buildup scheme, but their structural issues enabled the home team to bypass the press and make progress very quickly.

In the 3-4-1-2/3-1-4-2 shape, Villa pressed without the cohesion or traps to cage Arsenal in their half. They aimed to force their opponents down one side, often directed by John McGinn’s energetic moves behind the forward line, but Villa was caught lopsided plenty of times on these occasions. With the Villa shape drawn towards one channel, a simple carry or switch was enough for Arsenal to move out of their half and towards the final third.

6th minute: As Aston Villa’s shape was lopsided, Ben White was given the space to carry the ball from his defensive third, all the way towards the final third.

In these phases, Arsenal was able to engage their fullbacks and wingers very well and in a lot of space. Down the left, the flexibility of Emile Smith Rowe’s positioning caused both Cash and Ezri Konsa problems. When collecting deeper, Tavares remained a vertical option and pinned the opponent deeper, whilst Smith Rowe could carry in the halfspace against a disrupted Villa backline.

Down the right, Takehiro Tomiyasu’s carries enabled Arsenal to have a more genuine right side threat. Bukayo Saka and Lacazette could rotate between them, whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang constantly made movements behind the defensive line.

 Villa’s poor ball circulation

The away team’s possession structure operated a bit differently. Konsa pushed into the right channel in sequences, which enabled Cash to push higher up the field and created asymmetry between the wing-backs. Buendía dropped around the double pivot, whilst McGinn pushed forward, but as the half continued, such movements became less prominent.

Villa exchanged a lot of passes around the backline in the first half but had no way of breaking Arsenal lines from several issues. Firstly, the spacing between players was too far between the defense and midfield, as close receivers were unavailable and those in possession could be pressed easily. Though Konsa moved out wide to push Cash forward, there was very little connection between the two.

Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 medium-to-high-block versus Aston Villa’s 3-4-1-2 asymmetric buildup shape, as seen in the first half.

Secondly, the wing-backs were unable to stretch the Arsenal backline, as neither man actively pinned the opposition fullback. As a result, Arteta’s team were able to congest play in the middle, whilst Ings and Watkins were forced to play in smaller spaces. With shorter passing options not accessible, and no patterns in play to open Arsenal’s defensive block, Villa in possession was uninspiring and fruitless.

Furthermore, this was a well-drilled defensive scheme that Arsenal had established, which also made use of the vast space between Villa players when they passed the ball out. In the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation, Aubameyang and Lacazette offered efficient pressure from the front, whilst Arsenal was a lot more effective in forcing Villa down one side, as the farside winger drifted closer to the ball without making them unbalanced.

 Arsenal joy down the channels

Arsenal pinned Villa in their half and matched their dominance with a vast number of opportunities. When Villa defended deeper, they sat in a 5-2-1-2 medium-to-low-block, which had a spatial disadvantage down the channels.

With a lack of cover down the flanks, it was easy for Arsenal to create overloads. Smith Rowe and Tavares constantly got into one-versus-one or two-versus-one situations, regardless of where Cash was. If the wing-back stayed deep, then Arteta’s team could freely exchange and rotate in front of them, whilst if Cash stepped up, then space was made behind to take Konsa on.

As Arsenal usually create, the bulk of their opportunities came through on the left, only that the versatile and aggressive partnership of Tavares and Smith Rowe created better chances than what we often associate with Arsenal.

Thomas Partey smacked the crossbar, Saka missed a big opportunity off a great counterattack, but Arsenal got their goals. Partey flicked in his first goal for the club from a corner kick, sadly not from one of his long shots that he often attempts. Arsenal’s second goal came just before the half time whistle, a penalty from Aubameyang saved, but back into the striker’s path to put the rebound in.

 Smith changes the shape

Having not achieved a single shot in the first half, and with massive structural issues in his formation selection, it came as no surprise that Smith changed at half-time. Off came Axel Tuanzebe, replaced by Leon Bailey as Smith moved his team back to the 4-2-3-1 formation.

This didn’t have too much effect on the positioning of players from deep, only that Konsa moved more central and Cash collected from deeper. However, the addition of Bailey on the right resulted in Watkins on the left, a position that Smith himself had acknowledged that he “didn’t envisage him out there” before the start of the season.

46th minute: Third-man combination to get Watkins behind the defensive line. After receiving from the goalkeeper, Matt Targett passes infield to the roaming Buendía (Grey ball, first pass), who then dinks the ball over the defenders and into Watkins path (Black ball, second pass.)

Ironically, it was Watkins on the left that put Villa into the dangerous positions at the start of the half. These came in fast offensive moves where he was able to be separated from his marker. In the first phase, his third man run was met by an excellent Buendía pass over the defensive line, but his shot from an acute angle was perhaps not the best decision.

The second came from a second phase off a counter after Douglas Luiz was able to get another chance to play Watkins through against Tomiyasu. This time he was able to get the ball to Ings, but the striker couldn’t turn back towards goal to get a shot off.

Although Villa got more of the ball and outnumbered Arsenal for shots in the second period, this was a team that was devoid of a game plan in possession. Villa didn’t hit Arsenal with counterattacks, despite the transitional threat at their disposal, whilst being incapable of breaking down their opponents’ block. Ultimately, they still succumbed to Arsenal’s zonal defensive scheme, which forced Villa outside and mopped up loose passes back inside.

Smith Rowe added the third goal ten minutes into the half, which killed the chances of a comeback. On the counter, Cash was caught upfield with no defensive cover behind him, which allowed Smith Rowe to move into the space and connect with Aubameyang. His shot deflected off Tyrone Mings but was enough to beat Emiliano Martínez at his near post.

From this point onwards, the game lost its pace and the game state didn’t change. Villa pressed higher up the field, with more balance amongst the forwards but not enough to suppress Arsenal. Substitute Jacob Ramsey got one goal back, a fantastic hit from the edge of the box, which landed in the top corner, but Villa lacked the substance throughout the rest of the half.


Arteta may have shown few ideas with this Arsenal team, but at least it’s a squad with a much better fit. Both Tomiyasu and Tavares are raw talents, but they are additions that were needed, whilst Smith Rowe looks unchangeable the more games he features.  

Villa brought in big additions to replace Grealish, but the loss of their captain has seen them lose their style of play. The quick free-kicks, directness and organized counterpressing are no longer embodied in their identity, elements that Dean Smith desperately needs to salvage.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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