One step forward and two back seems to be the story of Arsenal’s season so far, as they failed to build on any momentum gained from their accomplished display at Old Trafford, by losing 3-0 at home to Aston Villa.
Arteta chose to stick with the same personnel and formation that worked so effectively against Manchester United, however in the space of a week they couldn’t have put in two more contrasting performances.
The visitors combination of flair in attack, stability in the midfield and organisation at the back proved too much for Arsenal, as Smith’s side ran riot at the Emirates, baring the limitations of our 3-4-3 system for all to see.
Over the next two weeks, major work is needed in order to get the players ready for the transition to Arteta’s preferred style and set-up of 4-3-3, as we have seen in recent games that this formation can only take us so far.
There’s no denying that Arsenal’s record in the big matches has improved, which is testament to Arteta’s tactical nouse, as he has adapted his style to suit these types of matches – due to the defensive stability it provides along with the platform to counter quickly.
However, in home games we should be setting up to play expansive attacking football and this system doesn’t accommodate for that, therefore we need to begin the process of moving away from it in order to benefit us in the long run.
Examples vs Aston Villa
In most games, the onus is on the home side to take the game to the opposition and not let them settle into the game easily. It requires an aggressive press out of possession while taking control of the ball for large spells to stop any momentum from the visitors.
However, naturally when setting up with five defenders, the team sits deeper than they would otherwise which invites pressure from the opponents.
Straight from the off, it was clear that we showed too much respect to Villa and allowed them to grow in confidence during the early stages of the game by sitting off the ball, without pressing them.
Consequently, it took their forward line under a minute to capitalise on the spaces afforded to them, as Grealish was found with a ball in behind Bellerin causing Holding to push out of position.
This then created huge gaps between the defence, giving him the simple task of finding McGinn on the edge of the area with no player able to close him down fast enough. Perhaps if we had matched them man for man in the midfield, our set-up would have been higher up the pitch to close down their players in the build up, therefore negating any chance they had of playing it in behind us.
At this level, you cannot afford to give players of this quality time to build up from the back, especially with the array of attacking movement Villa have been showing this season.
For this system to be effective, it’s very reliant on the press being aggressive and organised, but because of the inconsistent nature of our players it means Arteta cannot rely on them to carry out detailed instructions such as this on a regular basis.
As you can see below, for Villa’s first goal we had our whole team in our own penalty area apart from Lacazette who was just outside. The fact that we were sat this deep, with no clear distinction between our defence and midfield meant we were once again unable to put pressure on the ball, allowing Barkley far too much time to pick out a pass.
The Englishman then had three different passing options, as he could have found Cash on the edge of the box, swung in a cross towards the back post or played a reverse ball in behind to the left-back. Barkley chose the latter, in order to exploit the space and due to the fact we were defending so narrow it gave Targett time to play it first time across the face of goal.
Another issue with defending in such vast numbers is that when we win the ball back there is no outlet, therefore the first couple of passes have to be sideways or backwards until we regain our shape further up the pitch. By the time we’ve done that, our chance to counter on them in the transition is gone, as it gives teams time to get back in numbers.
This game was not the first time we have been predictable going forward, as teams are becoming aware of the fact that we predominately focus our attacks down the left due to the overload Saka provides. As a result, the opposition can nullify this threat by shifting more players into that area of the pitch, restricting the spaces we have to work in.
A solution to this would be if we could move the ball from the left to the right much faster, however due to the fact that we play without a player who operates in between the lines, it means we struggle in this aspect without going backwards and playing it across the backline.
As you can see from the image above, at times Villa defended in a 4-4-2 formation as the two strikers occupied our central midfielders, blocking passes into them and forcing us to go wide. Once we had gone wide, their press would intensify as two to three players would smother the ball, leaving us with no option but to go back or loss the ball.
Attacking from wide areas can be extremely effective, however this only tends to be the case when teams play with a formation that allows players to flood the box. Due to the defensive nature of this system it isn’t expansive enough in order to be able to do this, therefore we are always left with one or two players to pick out in the area.
Without another passing option in the circle highlighted, there isn’t enough variety to our build up and only gives the opposition one dimension to think about when out of possession. Villa very quickly became aware of the fact that we were never going to attempt to play it through them, therefore committed more defenders to wide areas.
Not only this, but when we eventually lost possession the visitors would find McGinn and Luiz in acres of space to operate in, with the freedom to run directly onto our back-three, pick out a pass for Watkins to hold up or go back in order to draw Arsenal out.
Therefore, it creates an impossible task for our central midfielders, as to win the midfield battle they have to simultaneously carry-out multiple different tasks all while being outnumbered. Elneny and Partey were expected to be an option in the build up, progress us up the pitch in possession then cover spaces, initiate the press and win the ball back when they came forward.
As we all know, one of the main problems we’ve been faced with while in this formation is the lack of creativity, as quite often we only create a handful of chances per game. This forms a sense of reliance on our forward players, which every team should have to a certain extent, however when they miss one they could go the rest of the game without getting another one to put it right.
The passage of play above shows how our best opportunity of the game came about, as Tierney whipped cross was met by Lacazette and criminally put over the bar. Despite the quality of the cross, Tierney needs to have more than two options in situations like this, as we are crying out for a player who can operate in the circle highlighted.
If one of our players could receive Tierney’s pass on the half turn in this area, it would open up an abundance of different attacking scenarios. They would have been goal side of Aston Villa’s midfield, baring down on their defence with the possibility of taking a shot once Lacazette and Aubameyang’s run creates openings. If they chose to press the ball, then we would be able to slid in one of the strikers once they had committed themselves.
Until we change our set-up and allow that extra midfield to operate in these types of areas, then teams will find it very comfortable to defend against us, hence why we have been shut out in three of our last four Premier League matches.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of our performance came from the second goal, as Luiz was able to pick Barkley out over the top of our defence, where eight players were all standing in a line.
To make matters worse, despite having nearly our whole team ball watching on the edge of our own area, Villa still had a 2v2 on the left hand side and a 1v1 on the right, therefore no matter what pass he decided to play they had a good chance of exploiting us.
The fact that we were sitting so deep without any pressure on the ball is shameful and we got what we deserved when they went two goals up.
Also, looking at this from an offensive point of view even if we had won the ball back again our only option would have been to go sideways or over the top for Aubameyang who had four defenders around him, thus having little possibility of turning this situation into an attack.
In our quest to be more defensively secure it appear we have paid the ultimate price of not being able to create chances and put the ball in the back of the net.
We have now gone six hours and 26 minutes since our last goal in open play in the Premier League and are stuck with our most potent goal threat playing out wide to accommodate for players who aren’t good enough to play for Arsenal.
It will be a long road to get us back to being competitive over the course of a whole season, however the way we set up now will do us no favours in the future.
Hopefully we can learn from this in the coming weeks and see noticeable changes as we try to implement Arteta’s preferred formation and tactics.
I’m a 20 year-old Arsenal fanatic and aspiring Sports Journalist, who will be studying how to write about the Beautiful Game at Solent University from September in an attempt to make my dream into a reality.
Since the age of 8 I have played academy football, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out – therefore I decided to pursue the next best career for me.
I am aiming to write honest and interesting articles about the club I love, and to share my opinion (one from the younger generation of Arsenal supporters) with as many other fans as possible!