Arsenal 1-2 Aston Villa – Match Report

Richard Dunne tackles Robin Van Persie as Arsenal rue slow start at the Emirates

Starting formations and lineups for the game. Click to enlarge.

A frantic game at the Emirates saw Aston Villa’s quick start out of the traps beat Arsenal. A depleted home side welcomed back Thomas Vermaelen after a long injury lay-off. Arsenal lined up in what could now be described as their ‘Fabregasless’ formation: a 4-3-3 with the midfield switching from a ‘2-1’ double pivot to a ‘1-2’, with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere working on a similar axis in front of Alex Song, who had more license to move across the pitch laterally. Aston Villa also lined up in a less familiar shape than normal, a 4-3-3. Nigel Reo-Coker swept up behind the solid Stiliyan Petrov and attack-minded Fabian Delph, with the latter looking to link up with the attacking band of three.

Villa grab early lead

Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker dovetail well in midfield due to their different roles. Reo-Coker is a feisty midfield terrier, a good tackler and excellent marker. Today, he performed extremely well, breaking up Arsenal's attacks across the field and winning 8 out of 9 tackles. Petrov on the other hand is a calm, methodical distributor who completed 24 out of 29 passes and relieved pressure well by retaining the ball.

In recent years, Aston Villa’s natural tendencies were a perfect blueprint for beating Arsenal: defending deep, narrow, and having plenty of pace on the counter. This season, however, Villa are persevering with a more European style of play. Encompassing a more intensive pressing and a more possession-based approach, the O’Neill era problem of unimaginative hoof-ball has been solved, albeit with a much less solid defence. As such, Villa started enterprisingly, pressing high up the pitch and forcing Arsenal defenders into making mistakes. Darren Bent’s first goal on 11 minutes was more a result of an individual mistake by Sebastian Squillaci than anything Villa did, though. A corner was headed out, and the ball fell to Kyle Walker on the halfway line. The young Tottenham loanee picked out Darren Bent perfectly, and the predatory frontman stayed onside, controlled the ball well with his chest before lifting it expertly over Wojciech Szczesny.

Minutes later, he doubled his tally and Villa’s lead. A freekick was neatly played up to Ashley Young by James Collins, and the winger profited from Thomas Vermaelen’s slip to roll a wonderful ball into Bent’s path. The England striker made no mistake, slotting coolly past Szczesny. Within the first 20 minutes, Aston Villa were 2-0 up, and the goals came from two shots; an excellent example of how Bent was worth his £18 million transfer fee. Villa’s passing was slick and incisive, and Arsenal looked sluggish and uncertain. Andrey Arshavin, in particular, was failing to track the runs of Kyle Walker, a fatal error considering the lethal partnership formed between he and Stewart Downing this season.

Arsenal begin fightback…

Arsenal eventually clawed their way back, but by now Villa were playing in their classical “O’Neill” style; sitting deep, narrow and in numbers and playing on the break as Bent made himself a nuisance up front. A major problem this season has been the lack of creativity from the midfield two, but today this was perfect. The energetic Reo-Coker complimented the calm distribution of Stiliyan Petrov, and as Villa weren’t looking to attack, defence-splitting passes did not need to be played. However, with Villa playing a midfield three, Fabian Delph was brought in to the side. He provided the thrust and penetration that Villa have been lacking, causing Alex Song problems when in possession and hassling him when out. His passing was also ambitious and accurate, pinging balls out wide to the wingers and linking up with Bent well.

As always with Arsenal, their technical skill continued to offer a level of threat. An exquisite through-ball by Jack Wilshere set Aaron Ramsey free, with the young midfield brought down in the box by Richard Dunne for what should have been a penalty. This was only the start of Dunne’s problems, with the Irish captain running a fine line with the referee and playing Van Persie onside on numerous occasions. Indeed, Van Persie was Arsenal’s greatest threat throughout the match, playing an all-round game extremely well and hitting the post after evading Collins’ desperate dive on 36 minutes. That said, the gap between midfield and attack for Arsenal was large, and though Van Persie’s hold-up play was good often the Dutchman received the ball with no player within the final third.

A key feature of both side’s play was the focus on the right hand side of their attack: with Arshavin’s aforementioned defensive laziness exposing Gibbs to Aston Villa’s best player, 50% of Aston Villa’s attacks came down their right hand side. Likewise, on the other side of the pitch Sagna was getting forward extremely well, taking advantage of Ashley Young’s tucked-in position on the left of the Villa attack to link with Theo Walcott. Luke Young got sucked up the field in order to fill the void of width, and Theo Walcott repeatedly attempted to test the ageing full-back for pace. Young dealt reasonably well with Walcott by sticking tight to him and nicking the ball off him before he could gather speed, but as Walcott drifted inside and took Young with him, athletic runs from Sagna opened up space and stretched the Villa defence. With Dunne even more exposed, Villa were aided by a string of odd refereeing decisions culminating with Van Persie seemingly being penalised for getting past Irishman.

Second half formations and lineups. Click to enlarge.

…but lack end product.

As the second half began Arsene Wenger made a bold change, removing the poor Squillaci for Marouane Chamakh’s height and power. Robin Van Persie moved behind Chamakh, playing the ‘Fabregas role’ and Aaron Ramsey dropped back into the double pivot alongside Jack Wilshere as Arsenal switched to a more normal 4-2-3-1. Alex Song dropped back into defence.

With Arsenal looking decidedly more focused and patient, Villa’s gameplan remained simple: soak up pressure and hit on the break. Song and Thomas Vermaelen took it in turns to step up into midfield, a high-risk manoeuvre considering Bent’s pace and Villa’s directness on the counter. It did, however, give them an extra man in midfield to compound their technical advantage. Arsenal were wasteful in possession, however, with some uncharacteristic sloppy passing by their defence in particular. In a scene more familiar to Arsenal fans, their attack was guilty of trying to score the ‘perfect goal’ on more than one occasion, starkly displayed when Van Persie passed for Gibbs to have his shot saved well by Friedel rather than shoot himself with the goal at his mercy.

James Collins and Richard Dunne have been criticised this season for mistakes, lapses in concentration and failure to adapt to the new style of play Villa have in place. Today, however, they were back to doing only what they do best, and their defending around the penalty box was superb, succeeding in 10 tackles between them. Not shown on the diagram is their willingness to put their bodies on the line: 5 of Villa's 9 blocks came from their central defensive pair.

Wenger made another change, taking off the anonymous Andrey Arshavin and bringing on another tall striker in Nicklas Bendtner. The lanky Dane made an immediate impact, nodding on for Walcott to flick narrowly wide. Arsenal continued to suffer from their love of passing, however, and for all their possession over the course of the match) they had only 4 shots on target in the entire second half. That said, the defending from Villa was resolute, blocking 10 of Arsenal’s 24 shots. The much-maligned duo of James Collins and Richard Dunne were formidable, with the Welshman in particular a rock in and around the box. Together they contributed 10 tackles, 6 of them being pivotal inside-the-box challenges. Both were particular excellent in the air, winning 75% of their aerial duels against the likes of Maroune Chamakh, Robin Van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner.

Late equaliser doesn’t change game

The refereeing decisions continued to hurt the home side, with the referee ruling out Chamakh’s 75th minute header for a push on Kyle Walker. At the back of his defence, Brad Friedel had an imperious game, with the veteran keeper pulling off excellent reflex stops and commanding his box well, with the latter particularly pleasing due to it being one of his perceived weaknesses. As Villa defended deeper and more desperately, the tired and yellow-carded Stiliyan Petrov was taken off for another energetic battler in the form of on-loan American international Michael Bradley.

With Bent foraging for loose balls up front (that the Arsenal defence provided him on more than one occasion), his supporting wingers dropped deep to form a solid midfield four, with Reo-Coker sweeping behind them as Villa switched to a 4-1-4-1ish formation. With three energetic players in midfield tracking the movement of the Arsenal players well, the defence was left to do a simple of job merely winning headers and tackles. Eventually though, the Arsenal pressure told as yet another ball bounced free in the Villa area and Van Persie managed to flick it past Friedel from point-blank range. As Arsenal threw everyone forward and Villa brought on extra height in the form of Emile Heskey, Villa held out for a final few minutes to clinch a good win.


A frustrating night for Arsenal fans will be compounded by the knowledge that the same flaws remain within the Arsenal side. They remain a side prone to overcomplicating things, especially when the opposition prove hard to break down, and on occasion seem to patently refuse to shoot even if the opportunity itself is there for the taking. Robin Van Persie must be given credit for an excellent all-round game, but Arsenal left too large a gap between their attack and defence at times. It must be remembered that this is essentially an ‘alternate’ formation for Arsenal, but at times they look uncomfortable in it.

Arsene Wenger, hamstrung by the absence of key players such as Nasri and Fabregas and experienced players like Clichy, played the strongest team he could. He also made the right tactical decisions: when Villa were playing extremely deep, he brought on extra height in Marouna Chamakh and Nicklas Bendtner, and essentially dropped his defensive midfielder by taking off Squillaci and moving Song back into defence as Villa had nobody to track. On the other hand, it could be argued that he made a mistake in playing Andrey Arshavin over Tomas Rosicky on the left of the Arsenal attack. With 38% of Villa’s attacks coming down their right hand side over the course of the season, the more defensively disciplined Rosicky would have tracked the runs of Kyle Walker far better than his Russian teammate did and left Villa with a chronic lack of width.

The clinical Villa finishing is highlighted by the amount of shots taken by both sides over the course of the match. Villa had 8, 3 of which were on target, 2 of which were scored, giving them a 25% shot conversion rate. Arsenal, by contrast, managed 23 shots, 5 of which were on target, and 1 of which was scored, giving them a shot completion rate of under 5%.

Villa, on the other hand, will be ecstatic. After losing 15 of their last 24 games to Arsenal, an away win at the Emirates is a huge boost. There was surely a moment of panic for Villa fans when Van Persie scored, knowing as they do that Villa have dropped 26 points from winning positions this season, more than any other Premier League side. The defence remains shaky, but today they held out well enough to secure the win. However, these cracks should not be papered over, and the squad needs investment in the summer. The retention of the services of Kyle Walker would be a good start, as the England full-back has been exceptional this half-season. Perhaps Harry Redknapp, despite all his protestations to the contrary, would be willing to sell if the price was right. Brad Friedel too showed there was life in the old dog yet, and the prospect of the Premier League legend as Number 1 for the next season is one that most Villa fans should accept gladly.

There was much to be pleased about with this win – the return to form of Collins and Dunne, Stewart Downing continuing to prove that the inevitable departure of Ashley Young will not be as painful as first thought, Fabian Delph excelling in a midfield three – but most of all was the supreme finishing ability of new fan favourite Darren Bent. Questions were raised over the expensive transfer fee when he arrived from Sunderland, but his goals have dragged Villa free from the relegation dogfight. More importantly, it could be said that he is the missing piece of the puzzle that Villa have lacked since the arrival of Randy Lerner – a truly top-class goalscorer. At the end of a disappointing season, Aston Villa can go in to their final game against Liverpool safe in the knowledge that relegation is impossible, and full of optimism for the future.


12 thoughts on “Arsenal 1-2 Aston Villa – Match Report

  1. Great report, loving the layout too.

    Agree on most points but I felt at times Collins decision making was rather poor and got the defence into a bit of trouble. Something which has happened far to often this season. What he is good at though is getting blocks in and winning aerial battles which again he succeeded with.

    Hopefully we don’t lose Reo-Coker, he still has a crucial role to play at this club and has proved it with his form over this season, in particular the last couple of months.

    Top marks for McAlister also, this somewhat makes up for the poor results in recent weeks, he got it tactically spot on today and the formation worked very well. He could have easily gone for the ambitious approach of playing Gabby alongside Bent, and if we lost today people would have been asking why we didn’t play ‘4-4-2’.

    • I think the reason why Collins did so well was because he only had to do the things he’s good at: tackling, winning headers, marking, putting blocks in. He occasionally got his positioning wrong and put us at risk, but he was a beast in the air against Chamakh. He has a role to play in the future, I think.

      I’m a massive fan of Reo-Coker. If he stays with us and keeps performing like this, he could earn himself an England spot. He’s learnt his limitations recently, and keeps it simple and short when passing, yet still retains that steel and fire that makes him such a formidable DM.

      And McAllister too! I am surprised indeed. I had very little faith in him, but whilst this wasn’t a tactical masterclass he got almost everything right. Agreed on the 4-4-2, against Arsenal it just wouldn’t have worked. Ramsey and RvP would’ve got far too much space in the ‘hole’, and systematically ripped us apart. Having NRC as ‘insurance’ allowed our midfielders to press and disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Very good article, Nick. A couple of things from me since I appear to be gradually being shunted out of Arsenal Report HQ to be replaced by a younger, more technically polished French bloke. Much like the real Arsenal in fact – think of me as some kind of modern Robert Pires, since the real one is rather ancient now..

    Enough of my incoherent ramblings:

    This season, however, Villa are persevering with a more European style of play

    Somewhat ironic? It’s not like you are/ever will play in Europe 😉

    Re: Our defence and Squillaci..
    1. I’ve had enough of him. As you well know, I’m a staunch supporter of most of Arsenal’s players and eventually I’m usually proved right – Koscielny has comes on leaps and bounds while Fabianski greatly improved before his injury setback. Squillaci is taking the michael, though – On this occasion, Wenget got it wrong and needs to replace him this summer with an experienced CB for emergency cover.

    2. I thought Song was rather good, actually. You mention that he and others presented opportunities to Villa on a number of occasions which for me, is true of the first half, but no much of the second. Alex Song actually did rather well covering for Vermaelen in a position he hasn’t played in since he was a 19 year old on loan at Charlton. While he was composed and aware of Bent’s movement, Squillaci tried to play himself out of trouble by giving the ball to Sagna all the time, or to Song – both of whom were closed down well in the first 20 minutes. This chalkboard shows what I mean:

    As you rightly and graciously conceded, Arsenal were rather hard done by in refereeing decisions.. Interesting that despite Arsenal focusing most of their play on the right hand side, your chalkboard shows NRC covering behind Downing (Who I would have thought was the more defensive minded of your two wingers). McCalister almost paid the price for being FAR too cautious in the second half. Villa didn’t really bother to play on the break, although they should have – RvP pushed up alongside, and often ahead of, Chamakh and NRC seemed to be left out entirely in the second half. Wilshere and Ramsey tried several chipped balls into the box, or simply released Sagna and Villa couldn’t really press efficiently – Petrov had been booked, Delph more attack-minded and NRC covering the ‘hole’ which had either no one, or one of the strikers in it – he’s small and adept at harrying technical midfielders but didn’t seem to do such a good job of tracking Chamakh and RvP.

    Here’s what I mean by Villa’s lack of pressing:

    Villa only had 5 shots in the second half – one was from the half-way line, two came in the same move and only one was from inside the box:

    Finally – why can’t all Arsenal fans be as gracious in victory as commenter #1 is? There’s always SOME problem for Arsenal fans – we beat Utd 1-0 but we still need an English rock at the back.. Sorry – I won’t ramble. Neither the time, nor the place.

    • You’re more like a modern day Ray Parlour, getting pushed out of the side by Vieira. 😉 Hell, at least if we get into Europe we won’t lose to a better team and then spend the rest of the week sulking and developing a vendetta against them. :p The ironic thing is when we WERE playing in Europe we weren’t playing a European style. Now we aren’t, we are. Meehhhh.

      1. Squillaci is… just lols. His defending is truly pantomime stuff on occasion, and he looks totally out of his depth. At the beginning of the season, both he and Koscielny were being criticised, but not only has Kos improved immeasuably but he has age on his side, which Squillaci most certainly doesn’t. Bad transfer.

      2. I didn’t say Song was bad, did I? If I did, then whoops. I thought he played well today in an unfamiliar role (to an extent, he started his career there after all). Vermaelen and Song have left a lot to be desired in the past, but this time they worked well and covered in tandem.

      I think the way the chalkboard can be explained is because Downing, although a hard worker (albeit a questionable tackler) was today asked to stay high up the pitch and try and exploit any mistakes Gibbs may have made, as well as testing the young full-back with his skill. As such, with Petrov the right-sided midfielder holding his place because of his lack of mobility, Reo-Coker had to come across and cover. This of course left us even more exposed on the left. You’re right about our cautiousness, and I’m not sure that’s GMac’s fault. It seems to be something inherent, we do it all the time and have paid the price on numerous occasions this season. Playing direct on the break is our biggest strength, and we need to utilise it better.

      And I’m assuming most of the Villa fans are gracious in victory because we’ve been on the receiving end of major screwing over by refs quite a bit now. That, and the general sense of relief. 😉

      • No you didn’t say he was bad – just that our defence gave the ball away a lot. Was just pointing out that it was Squillaci’s fault. All his fault and no one but his fault. 😉

        Interesting re: Reo-Coker. I thought Petrov should have been taken off earlier – he could easily have been sent off for two bookings. Dunne was pretty hapless as well at times – should have given away the most stonewall pen ever & kept giving RvP a good kicking.

        How can two defenders play so well under O’Neill, and yet rather badly under GMac as you so endearingly call him! (?) Surely their “role” hasn’t really changed.. To borrow some FM terms, they’re the most limited of limited defenders. Their job was always to stick a foot or a head in the way and hoof it clear when possible. Do they have less defensive support in this new “European” tactic? Or what can it be? Their specific role doesn’t seem to have changed all that much – certainly not yesterday.

  3. Petrov is declining, frankly. Bit of a liability at times, but useful in a Denilson kind of way if we’re winning late on and need an experienced head and good ball retention.

    I think their role HAS changed, actually. Under MON, their job was simple: win the ball and hoof. Now, they have to start attacks, bring the ball out of defence and distribute wisely as well as adapt to a new marking system under Houllier. Confusingly, Houllier’s system is Man marking rather than the Zonal one MON used.

  4. Hi interesting read I like the pictures, you are a Villa fan yes?

    If so.. do you think Delph is going to be a great player like England starting eleven quality?

    Ashley Young has proven himself to be a very good player, do you think he can move to a team such as Man United? Does he have the work ethic to suit SAf’s system? I;m not so sure but I do think he’s great for Villa.

    I think Villa will need some new central defenders as well, maybe James Tomkins of West Ham would be a useful signing, wht do you think?

    Keep up the good work.

    • Very much a Villan. 😉

      I think it’s too early to start heaping pressure like that on Delph. He’s looked extremely promising so far, but he’s going to have to hold down a place with us and win an England spot in the face of fierce opposition if he’s going to be good enough for their starting eleven.

      I think Young’s work ethic is actually pretty good, for a winger. Not as good as Valencia or Park, of course, but a damn sight better than Nani. I reckon he could fit in pretty well at United, he just would need to drop the ego a bit. Nobody better than Sir Alex to round him out though.

      Tomkins is an interesting shout. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s a talented young defender, whether he’s good enough for Villa remains to be seen, especially for a starting spot. I reckon we need some proven, experienced talent in at CB alongside Carlos Cuellar (who needs to be reinstated to the starting lineup ASAP).

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. You quite rightly praise Walker, he has been fantastic for us, but I’m slightly wary of his defensive liabilities. Do you see him becoming a quality right back for someone? Or do you think he’d have a progression like Gareth Bale and end up as a winger? I’m always surprised to see someone so adept at taking on people playing at right back.

    • I’m not sure, frankly, but he’s been excellent. His defensive skills are occasionally not up to scratch, but that will improve with time. Remember, people said the same kind of thing about Ashley Cole and look where he is now. Besides, I think the things he offers in attack and the balance he adds to the team outweigh his defensive lapses. We can’t really praise his attacking instinct and then tell him off when he’s caught out of position when the opposition counters.

      I’ll be interested to see where he ends up.

  6. Sorry I forgot to ask in my other comment are you going to keep writeing during rthe summer break? There will be some matches such as international but not so many, would be a shame to have to stop writing for a while so soon after starting.

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