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Tactical Howlers, Mixed Substitutions and a Resolute Villa: Tactical Breakdown of How Arsenal Succumbed to Aston Villa

Aston Villa vs Arsenal

I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’m shocked to see us lose 1-0 to an Aston Villa side fighting relegation whilst we beat Liverpool and Manchester City in the space of a week. But it happened and Villa deserves credit for their performance, as they were fighting for survival in the Premier League. For the first time since 1998, Arsenal have lost to Aston Villa at Villa Park.

Mikel Arteta wanted to try something new by playing Nketiah on the right. Eddie Nketiah is not a wide player, and never will be one. When in possession of the ball, we played in the usual 3-2-5 formation with Torreira and Ceballos forming the midfield pivot. Giving Xhaka a one match rest is understandable, as he’s been performing exceptionally well for us since the restart of the Premier League. However, Torreira gets uncomfortable when asked to make through passes and for this reason, Ceballos had to do everything – from dropping deep to receive the ball to making through passes and initiating attack sequences.

According to WhoScored, Dani Ceballos made the most passes in the Aston Villa vs Arsenal game with 107. As expected, Saka and Cedric occupied the wide spaces with Kolasinac being the third center-back. Sometimes, our shape with the ball shifted to a 2-3-5 formation with Kolasinac being an inverted full-back. I think it’s fair to say that Sokratis should’ve played instead of Kolasinac. Without the ball, we set up in a 5-2-3 formation, similar to the last couple of games.

Aston Villa set up in a 4-3-3 formation on paper but on the pitch, they set up in a 2-3-4-1 with Mbwana Samatta leading the line while Jack Grealish was given a free role by Dean Smith. Certainly, he was the most important player on the pitch for the Clarets, occasionally popping up on the wings to cross. Marking Grealish was difficult for the Gunners and Ceballos was tasked with that.

Aston Villa vs Arsenal
(Photo by SHAUN BOTTERILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Since Grealish was given a free role, it was difficult for us to keep our shape intact without the ball. Douglas Luiz and Conor Hourihane took turns in dropping deep and receive the ball. Matt Targett didn’t advance as high up the pitch as Ahmed Elmohamady (and later Guilbert) did. Without the ball, Villa set up in a 5-3-2 formation with Trezeguet and Samatta leading the line.

Defending set-pieces have become difficult for us this season. It’s not a surprise that we have conceded upwards of 45% goals from set-pieces including corners, free-kicks, and penalties. Mings’ header went back to Trezeguet, who unleashed a belter and Martinez could do nothing. What baffles me is that Trezeguet was left completely open by Cedric. Nothing much happened after that. Ceballos tried to bring us back in the game in the 29th minute when he tried a shot from distance but to no avail.

Mikel Arteta had to abandon his usual substitution plan to bring in Xhaka for Torreira and there was immediate stability in midfield for us. But what puzzles me is the other substitutions the Spaniard made in the Aston Villa vs Arsenal game. Yes, we had to get back in the game, and bringing in Pepe was understandable, but bringing him on for David Luiz confused me.

Kolasinac was struggling throughout the game and Arteta made him play in the middle of the back 3 as Tierney was brought on for Saka. Playing with four forwards whilst trailing is a bit risky. As Pepe was brought on, Nketiah went narrower and a bit closer to the opposition goal.


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Villa did come close to scoring a second goal. Grealish laid in a beautiful pass to substitute Keinan Davis, who missed it by inches. As the minutes went by, Villa sat deeper and deeper to defend their lead and they remarkably held their own. We had 69% possession but no shot on target. This tells us how incredible Villa were in their defending and how toothless Arsenal were in attack.

This is the first time since 1989 where we failed to beat any of the promoted sides away from home. As the focus now shifts towards the last game of the season against Watford, let’s hope to finish this season on a high.

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