Afternoon. Hope you all had a good weekend. Mine was going really well, filled as it was with great food, drink and company. But then Arsenal came and spoiled it all, as they are want to do. There’s nothing else I could possible write about today, so let’s get into yesterday’s disastrous 0-3 defeat to Aston Villa.
Things first started to go wrong one hour prior to kick-off with the announcement of the team. I can perfectly understand why Mikel Arteta decided to go with the same XI that beat Manchester United so impressively last time out. It was a huge win – our first at Old Trafford in the league since 2006 – and the manager opted to reward those players with another chance to shine.
But I didn’t like it at all. United away is a fundamentally different fixture to Villa at home. High levels of fitness, pressing and defensive organization, paired with purposeful counterattacks, are required to suppress the Mancunian threat on the road. By contrast, we must expect to dominate the ball when visited by a side that only avoided relegation by a fraction last season. Quick and incisive passing, off-the-ball movement and waves of thrusting attacks are needed to break down the Villans’ low block.
With that in mind, why was Rob Holding selected ahead of David Luiz? The Brazilian’s range of passing is crucial in providing early impetus to our forays forward. There is an argument to say that Holding is the better defender, but that’s not particularly relevant if we are going to have 59% possession. That the Englishman was at fault for at least one, if not two of Villa’s goals only compounds what was already the wrong decision to play him in the first place.
Moving into the midfield, why was Mo Elneny chosen in place of more creative options like Dani Ceballos? The Egyptian was excellent against United, as he was against Liverpool in the Community Shield, but his greatest qualities – energy, attitude and dynamism – are always likely to succeed in games against tougher opponents in which we will be starved of the ball for long periods. I like Elneny but this was not the game for him. Ceballos is more inventive and ambitious with the ball. He is more likely to find a defense-splitting pass. When the Spaniard came on at half-time, we already had a mountain to climb.
The problems in the attacking third merit a separate post on their own. If I had to single-out the most glaring mistake, it would be picking Willian ahead of Nicolas Pepe. Again, I see the structural appeal of picking the technically sound and tactically obedient Brazilian. He was perfect for United. Against an organized and skilled Villa defense, however, we needed more than structure and solidity in our attack. In Pepe, Arteta has an exciting and unpredictable weapon in his toolbox. The Ivorian can frustrate at times, but he has also registered two goals and two assists in three Europa League outings this term. Against Villa, his maverick flair might well have made the difference.
And finally to the formation. Ever since trying it for the first time at Southampton, Arteta has been wedded to this 3-4-3 that mutates into a 4-3-3 in possession. It was effective during Project Restart, particularly in the fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea on our way to winning the FA Cup. We stopped shipping goals and became competitive in the “big” games. But faced with a supremely talented Villa midfield featuring Jack Grealish, Ross Barkley and Douglas Luiz, we were crying out for an extra man in the middle to support our front three.
Why not try a 4-2-3-1 with either Willian or Joe Willock as the central attacking midfielder ahead of a double pivot of Thomas Partey and Ceballos? Then you can have Pepe on the right, Saka on the left with Tierney and Bellerin overlapping down the flanks. Aubameyang can play through the middle – his favoured and best position – with the options of Lacazette and Nketiah from the bench. It would surely offer more attacking outlets, connect the midfield with the attack, and avoid the problem of being outnumbered in the central areas.
There were, of course, other factors that contributed to this result. For starters, every Arsenal player had a bad game. That never helps. The injury to Partey on the stroke of half time also presented us with a massive hurdle that we were ultimately unable to jump. The powerful Ghanaian was by far and away our best player during the first 45 with meaningful distribution and a couple of strong tackles. We missed him enormously after the break.
With two weeks until our next game, Arteta has plenty of time to stew over the errors he and his players made yesterday. He is young, determined and most importantly talented. I hope and believe he will learn and become a better manager for the experience. He had better because, taking into consideration a similarly disappointing performance against Leicester last month, pressure is slowly but surely starting to build on the Spaniard. His honeymoon period is most certainly over.
Right, that’s all from me today. I’m off tomorrow to get a last blast of sun, sand and sea before the Christmas period, so I’m afraid I won’t post another article until Monday. Its not ideal, I know, but that mezcalito on the beach was just too hard to resist. I’m sure you understand. Until then, stay safe everyone and try not to think about Arsenal.
–What did you make of the Arsenal-Villa game? Where did Arteta get it wrong? Let me know if the comments below!–