Opening day of the season has been a consistent problem for Arsenal in recent years with three draws in the last three seasons prior to this weekend, while Aston Villa have experienced mixed results with a win, loss and a draw since 2010/11. Villa will have been optimistic going into the fixture with two wins at the Emirates from their last five attempts, a new contract for Christian Benteke, a group of young players now a season further in their Premier League development, and some impressive additions to the squad.
Arsenal enjoyed some positives during pre-season including eight goals from Olivier Giroud, however these positives have been largely overshadowed by the numerous failures to land important transfer targets. In addition to this, the defence was missing Thomas Vermaelen going into the fixture, and their injury troubles were about to get a lot worse.
Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere as the holding midfielders with Rosicky in the attacking central role. Perhaps the most interesting selection was the absence of Santi Cazorla from the starting line up, who was a potential injury concern and decidedly rested. This affected Arsenal’s tactical approach, as Cazorla plays a subtle playmaker role dropping in and out of the ‘pockets’ and building play, while Rosicky provides a more direct option, moving the ball forwards and then instantly running in behind (his type of run is something Arsenal may have consistently lacked in recent years).
Villa lined up in a 4-3-3/4-5-1, giving a debut to left back Antonio Luna, and used an energetic and combative midfield three of Ashley Westwood (who sat the deepest), Fabian Delph and El Ahmadi, while a front three of Weimann, Agbonlahor and Benteke provided pace power and penetration to threaten a shaky Arsenal back line. The strategy was fairly simple in a game where they could not be expected to dominate the ball against a team with some identifiable weaknesses elsewhere (mainly the high back line yet to establish themselves as a truly cohesive unit). Villa looked to absorb pressure where possible, battle in the middle of the pitch and exploit spaces immediately upon winning the ball, with the pace of Weimann and Agbonlahor key to this.
So for Arsenal it was a decision between penetration with Rosicky or patient build up with Cazorla, and the inclusion of the former arguably opened up the game to quicker transitions, and a more exciting game. From Cazorla’s 45 second half minutes he played 19% of his passes forwards, while Rosicky played forwards with 37% of his, and he follows these passes with his bursting runs. The perfect example of his direct style was in the opening goal where his pace down the left on the counter-attack allowed Giroud to slot home his first goal of the season.
Szczezny put in a wildcard performance which saw him pick up a yellow card and concede Villa’s first penalty, while he also end up 25 yards from his goal in the right back position during a mix up. With Vermaelan already missing, Arsenal’s defensive shortages were compounded by a head wound to Kieran Gibbs, a late injury to Bacary Sagna and the dismissal of Koscielny, while the withdrawal of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at half time will also prove to be a massive blow to the club. Debate will continue over Koscielny’s red card, however it did not alter their game plan of retaining the ball and getting the ball into the final third. Aaron Ramsey dropped into the centre of defence, while Rosicky dropped deeper into midfield alongside Jack Wilshere, and this lack of numbers obviously encouraged Villa to recycle the ball through the defence more frequently.
Villa used the movement of their forwards to their advantage, and it drew both Mertesacker and Koscielny to step out of an already high line at various times, which was enough to disrupt Arsenal’s organisation on a regular basis. Agbonlahor frequently made runs from wide to central (in behind Benteke), and used his pace to his advantage when the defense were unorganised. Villa’s strategy reminded me very much of their win at Anfield against Liverpool last season, which earned them the same result. Their transition upon winning possession was quick, direct, involved plenty of supporting runs to exploit the high line and it was an extremely reactive strategy. As well as the penalties, the counter-attacks led to Villa hitting post, and also led to Luna’s goal which completed the victory after Arsenal continued to commit numbers forwards despite the red card. The speed of that particular counter was incredible and Villa were quick enough to get supporting runners up with Luna, which allowed him to give Sczcezny the eyes for a pass across goal before he finished impressively into the near corner.
Arsenal will be devastated with a number of decisions that didn’t go their way throughout the game, while Paul Lambert will be delighted with the way his players stuck to the game plan and withstood the pressure of conceding early. They reacted quickly and cohesively upon winning possession, with a few touches of luck along the way. They face Chelsea and Liverpool in the next week and will be looking for repeat performances from Antonio Luna, who has settled in quickly, and the front three, who’s seamless movement and combination was essentially Arsenal’s undoing.