Aston Villa 2-4 Arsenal: Arsenal labour to victory
Arsenal dominated but only sealed victory in the final moments.
Gerard Houllier gave Robert Pires a home debut against his former side, playing him in an advanced central midfield role with Ashley Young left and Stewart Downing right. John Carew returned upfront.
Arsenal made numerous changes from the weekend defeat to Braga. Tomas Rosicky played the Cesc Fabregas role in the Spaniard’s absence, whilst it was the same backline as in last week’s defeat to Spurs.
The opening to the game saw almost complete Arsenal dominance. Villa sat back with two banks of four, with Pires just ahead generally putting pressure on Alex Song.
Poor Villa transitions
Although it seemed Villa were being incredibly submissive, their approach was, on paper, correct for this game. Two weeks ago they sat back and hit Manchester United on the counter by using the lightning pace of Young, Downing, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton. Considering Arsenal were caught out by a direct attack against Spurs last week, and another two in Braga in midweek, Villa’s tactics were not unreasonable.
The problem, however, was that their transitions from defence to attack were poor, and they simply weren’t countering well enough. The absence of Agbonlahor and Albrighton made them less pacey on the break, and the use of both Pires and Carew – neither of whom looked match fit – meant they weren’t mobile enough at the top end of the pitch. Combine this with Arsenal’s full-backs’ constant runs forward into the final third of the pitch which pushed Downing and Young into defensive zones, and Villa barely mustered a shot in the first half.
Problems with possession
They also conceded possession too easily when they had the ball – the two young players in that zone, Ciaran Clark and Barry Bannan, found it difficult to cope with Arsenal’s good pressing in the centre of midfield, something Arsene Wenger’s side have become better at doing this season. Bannan, a fine passer of the ball, put in a performance that is a good advert for central midfielders keeping it simple when they have the ball – his short passing was good and Villa were able to gradually put pressure upon Arsenal, but his Xabi Alonso-style passes to the flanks were overhit and produced little.
Villa didn’t really have a cohesive attacking plan – robbed of Agbonlahor’s pace and starting with a ‘big man’ upfront for the first time in a month, they seemed caught between trying to play on the counter and trying to play balls to Carew to hold the ball up. The Norweigan’s link-up play was particularly poor, as the chalkboard shows.
Second half changes
0-2 down at half-time, Houllier copied Harry Redknapp’s half-time switch from last week, taking off Pires and bringing on a pacey, mobile striker in Nathan Delfounso, in order to stretch Arsenal’s backline. And, though Delfounso had relatively little impact on the game directly, it certainly forced Arsenal back – they were forced to hold a deeper defensive line for fear of getting exposed through balls over the top. With seven minutes of the second half Villa had a goal, having not managed a shot on target in the opening period.
Arsenal looked nervous, and it was a surprise that Wenger didn’t opt to make changes earlier in the second half. Denilson could have come on to take the place of one of Arsenal’s more attacking players to keep the ball, for example. It was 85 minutes before Wenger turned to the bench.
The change he did back was to switch Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky from their starting places – since Arsenal were defending with two banks of four in the second half, Rosicky’s superior defensive qualities came in handy, whilst Arshavin orchestrated things from the centre.
Arsenal’s inability to keep the ball to defend a one-goal lead threatened to punish them late on, but it was that willingness to constantly get the ball forward that produced the clinching goal, a Jack Wilshere header from close range.
Villa didn’t defend particularly well against Arsenal – the first goal, for example, came from a terrible mix-up between two of their back four – and neither did they counter successfully in the first half. How they managed to score two goals in this game is somewhat of a mystery considering how little creativity they showed in open play, but then Arsenal have conceded seven goals in a week despite dominating the majority of all three matches.
That aside, Arsenal were impressive in this fixture. They passed the ball well, they got plenty of shots on goal, and they pressed Villa in midfield during the second half, making it difficult for the home side to get the ball forward from defence. They take top spot for the first time this season.