Complete Preview returns as Aston Villa find themselves returning to The Emirates to face Arsenal for the first time since 2016.

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It feels like Aston Villa are back home in the Premier League as another classic fixture rolls on come Sunday – away at Arsenal. Villa’s results against the Gunners have been mixed over the years, but this first return in three long years marks a different Villa, and a very different Arsenal side. 

Dean Smith’s match preview was what we’ve come to expect from the life-long Villan – frank, honest, well considered, tempered with perspective and positive realism. 

Smith admitted he was disappointed with the West Ham result, echoing the thoughts of fans with regard to Villa’s lack of cutting edge against a Hammers side who we should have beaten. In truth, Arsenal will likely be a tougher challenge and Dean Smith will want more from his players going forward. 

Are the Gunners firing?

Predicted Line-Up: (4-3-3)

Leno (GK), Maitland-Niles. Sokratis, David Luiz, Kolasinac, Xhaka ©, Ceballos, Ozil, Aubameyang, Pepe

Firstly, Arsenal’s front four of Ceballos, Ozil, Aubameyang and Pepe should not be taken lightly – that’s an attack which should scare the life out of most defenders. In 5 games, they’ve mustered 8 goals, winning two games, drawing two and losing one. 

Arsenal got the job done against Burnley and Newcastle, albeit with notable scares, and looked admirable on the counter against Spurs (who are currently a much stronger side than the Gunners). Against Liverpool they created a couple of good opportunities on the counter attack, but were largely outclassed in the end – nothing too surprising given Liverpool’s current footballing level. 

Watford was more concerning for Arsenal, as they surrendered a 2-0 lead and, in terms of expected goals, should have lost that game at Vicarage Road. Indeed, Arsenal’s current expected goals against in the Premier League is 9.35 – 4th worst in the league. 

The Gunners are capable of scoring, though their expected goals tally for in the league is also quite average, 6.21; which is about mid-table. While it’s likely that Arsenal have over-performed on their expected goals for & against because they have a good goalkeeper to make difficult saves and a bunch of talented finishers up front, it’s clear that Arsenal aren’t quite the dominant team that they once were. 

That being said, they’re a very, very good side on their day. The 3-0 dispatching of Europa League challengers on Thursday shows how good they can be when they get the mix of attack and defence right – in truth, Arsenal should have been out of sight by halftime.


Style of Play

Arsenal play largely the same under Emery as they did under Wenger. Playing a 4-3-3 they’re quite a fluid team with modern-day forwards who all interchange and play more like striker-winger-attacking midfielder-hybrids, though not to the same degree as Spurs. 

Attacks usually start from the back, as Arsenal have often played from their penalty box this season, where Xhaka, Torreira, or Guendouzi plays that deep-lying playmaker role. They often try to play through the midfield with quick short passes, but in modern times Emery has deployed his fullbacks in more attacking capacities to try and create options of runners out wide.

Typically, Arsenal spend most of their time patiently building up play. Passages of play which happen at “Normal” speeds in a match, or at “Slow” speeds, have contributed 5 of their 8 goals to mention. However, those passages have also resulted in 4 of their 8 goals conceded. This to say that Villa could look to exploit Arsenal’s build-up play by trying to press and win the ball when Arsenal are slowing the game down. 

Equally, if you get the press wrong against Arsenal, as Dean Smith said in his press conference, they will simply pass through you very quickly. I’d add that they’ll cut you open and probably score, too. From “fast” build up play, Arsenal have scored 2 goals from only 4 shots attempted at this speed. That’s a 50 percent success rate. Scary.

They’ve only attempted 4 shots from fast build up play out of a total of 65 shots attempted in the Premier League, which suggests that they haven’t realised how good they are on the counter or at playing the ball quickly, either that or teams haven’t given them the chance to do so often enough yet.  

Happily for Villa, I’d expect Dean Smith’s side to be conceding possession and awaiting opportunities to counter – Arsenal will have to break down a stubborn Aston Villa defence.

(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Firing Blanks or Missiles?

The problem with Arsenal, from what Arsenal fans tell me at every opportunity, is that despite having excellent players (at least up front), they are quite inconsistent. Notably, against Newcastle, Burnley, Liverpool and Watford, they didn’t create too many good chances or much of a potent goal-threat. 

But, they have one of last season’s top golden boot winners fully fit, and one of the world’s most highly regarded wingers in Pepe. Plus, Ozil always likes to turn up against the Villa. 

If Villa catch Arsenal’s forwards on a good day, then it could be a long afternoon for Grealish and his men on the pitch. However, we can only hope that Arsenal’s match on Thursday night will have given them less time to prepare and required additional physical effort which could leave the Gunners leggy. Honestly, no one knows which Arsenal will turn up. 

Young Ashley Maitland-Niles, the England prospect, has made a quietly good start to the season. He’s still learning with regards to the possession side of his game, but his tackling, dribbling, set pieces and general attacking passes have been strong. He has 2 assists in 5 appearances. He’s also only racked up less than a 7/10 rating once this season – and that was against the European Champions. Expect this youngster to give Villa a very tough time. 

Aubameyang is also in great form, scoring 5 goals in 5 appearances for Arsenal, he looks to be continuing his goal threat on from last season. 

(PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Are Changes Necessary for Aston Villa?

Frankly, I don’t envy Dean Smith’s decisions to make this Sunday. While we looked good at the back against a decent West Ham side, we didn’t provide enough attacking threat. Smith’s typically been more a tinker-man rather than someone who makes wholesale changes. I’d expect him to, either switch Nakamba for Hourihane or Luiz, or perhaps pick Trezeguet on the wing instead of (probably) Jota. 

There’s a lot of debate about where Villa can get goals from while Wesley continues to find his feet – is it about getting Jack further upfield, starting Hourihane or Lansbury? Or should we experiment with a different formation? 

For me, I think the answer lies in tactics rather than attempting an entirely new system. In truth, the 4-3-3 that modern teams play is incredibly flexible. But the front three for Villa tend to: 

  • Stay as high and as wide as possible (most of the time). Pick the ball up in midfield or in advanced areas of the pitch, then try to isolate their fullback and cut in or cross. 
  • Our wingers provide our main outlet via the creation of the width – for Welsey, or the midfielders to play the ball out to when under pressure. 
  • On the counter, our wingers tend to move slightly more central and run into space beyond the back four. 

This system means that our wingers are quite rigid, in truth. They’re usually very wide when we aren’t counter-attacking. 

However, this came unstuck against West Ham. The truth is that it’s quite easy for Premier League opposition to man-mark our wingers given the higher work rate of fullbacks in the league. This restricts the outlet which Villa have out wide, and often leads to our wingers having less of a sniff. The result is when you often see El Ghazi or Jota dropping deep in our own half before trying to progress the ball, but it’s difficult to pick the ball up in midfield and then dribble past players out wide to create something. 

Teams have cottoned on to the fact that if you stopped Aston Villa’s wingers, you stop Aston Villa’s main outlet and we tend to have a bad game. 

(Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Don’t Think of Wingers as Wide Men, They’re Not

Look at the modern wingers – they’re basically all forwards. Son’s performance last weekend showed him varying his position; he switched sides, ran centrally at the centre backs, tried to create width, but also even dropped into the “number 10” position. 

Mane and Salah do the same. Salah’s goal against Newcastle came from him running across the width of the pitch, into the number 10 position, and then he kept running into the position of a striker on the totally opposite side to where he started. 

The fact is, you don’t need a prolific striker if your forwards can mix it up and keep the opposition guessing – just look at Firmino’s role as a low-scoring build-up play merchant. And isn’t that the perfect role for a player like Wesley if he can hone his promising hold-up play?  

I would like to see El Ghazi and Jota attempting to make cute runs and taking up a variety of positions. Sometimes, when you have success on the wing as El Ghazi did when he destroyed Derby county at Wembley so effectively, it’s easy to forget that you can try different things when your normal position isn’t quite working. He already gets into the box to try and head the ball or shoot from crosses, but remember when he drifted in against West Brom for a shot and scored brilliantly? How long has it been since we saw that El Ghazi? 

Jota could also benefit from this. So far he seems like he’s been afraid to swap sides and use that lovely left foot from a different angle. He could link up nicely with Jack if he tried runs similar to the one Salah made against Newcastle and I think Jota could try playing in the centre of the pitch as much as he plays on the right.

I think these players just need some confidence to experiment a bit, and Smith needs to let them know that they have the license to roam. Afterall, he must get more out of his forwards at all costs.

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