Arsenal 1-2 Aston Villa – Match Report
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
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.
…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.
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.
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.