Heading into Tuesday’s Premier League tie with Aston Villa, spirits were sky-high for Arsenal. Off the back of a 2-1 defeat of Liverpool in the Premier League and a 2-0 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup, it seemed as though Arsenal would make short work of an Aston Villa side that was languishing in 19th place.
Arsenal made a few changes to the team that beat Manchester City, with Sead Kolašinac and Rob Holding coming in for Kieran Tierney and the injured Shkodran Mustafi respectively. Héctor Bellerín was replaced by Cédric Soares, Granit Xhaka was dropped to the bench in favour of Lucas Torreira, Eddie Nketiah started ahead of Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka started ahead of Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Arsenal started confidently, stroking the ball from side-to-side and began trying to make inroads to the low-block of Aston Villa. Despite this, Arsenal seemed unable to penetrate through Villa’s lines and a series of should’ve-known-better fouls from the likes of Lucas Torreira and Alexandre Lacazette, meant that Arsenal struggled to keep the play going.
Eventually, Arsenal conceded a corner, which was headed on by Tyrone Mings and was smashed home by Trézéguet to give Aston Villa an unexpected lead.
Poor defending on the Arsenal corner and slow reactions to keep the resultant effort out led to an all-too-familiar result for Mikel Arteta’s side.
At half-time, Arteta noticed the need for change. Lucas Torreira’s booking likely placed his head firmly on the chopping block at half-time, but Arsenal needed someone with an ability to pass the ball well and to compliment Dani Ceballos.
The change helped Arsenal’s sense of tactical fluidity, but the fact remained that Arsenal simply didn’t have the required personnel on the field to take advantage of the gaps in the Aston Villa defence.
Eventually, Arteta decided to make further changes, but the changes looked a little bizarre, even from a squad management perspective. David Luiz was replaced by Pépé and Saka was replaced by Tierney. It was an odd series of changes to make, given that Eddie Nketiah, back in the side after his red card against Leicester City three games prior, was struggling on the right-wing and Saka had looked to be one of Arsenal’s few bright sparks.
These changes too brought about little difference to Arsenal’s fortunes, until Nketiah latched onto a corner from Pépé, which struck the post and bounced into goalkeeper Pepe Reina’s arms. This chance was perhaps a sign that it just wasn’t to be Arsenal’s night.
Villa’s subs, however, seemed to fair better and mesmeric midfielder Jack Grealish was able to release Keinan Davis, who ran the ball into the penalty area and aimed a shot into the far corner, only for it to drift millimetres away from the far-post. A let-off for Arsenal.
Eventually, Arteta replaced Cédric, who’s crosses had failed to find a single teammate all game, with Joe Willock, but this too proved fruitless.
Villa held on for a while longer and eventually welcomed in the final whistle with three points that lifted them out of the relegation zone and firmly put them in control of their own destiny going into their final game of the season against West Ham United.
It was a sorry display from Arsenal and an unexpected one given their previous two results, but it summed up the issues rampant in the Arsenal squad and the enormity of the task that faces Mikel Arteta.
A lack of creativity in the side was an issue under Unai Emery, but it became painfully obvious last night how glaring the issues in the midfield are. The stats make for nightmare fuel as well, with Ceballos, Mattéo Guendouzi, Xhaka, Mesut Özil and Willock all registering just one big chance in the league, all bar Ceballos have one league goal and all have only two assists in the league, except for Willock who has one.
It’s an unacceptable and near-unprecedented lack of creativity for a club that has often been criticised for flare over function over the years.
It’s this reason that makes the continued exile of Mesut Özil all the more striking. Özil was regularly frozen out for reasons unknown under Unai Emery, but soon found his way back into the team under Arteta, but after the resumption of the league, Özil is conspicuous only by his absence. Arsenal’s striking lack of creativity seems to be intrinsically linked to the German playmaker’s continued omission, as was the case under Emery.
Özil’s absence was initially explained away as the German having recently become a father and wanting to spend time with his wife and newborn, however, when the same situation happened with Nicolas Pépé, the Ivorian was back almost immediately. Özil was then reported to have been out with a back injury, something the playmaker struggled with under Emery as well, however, with each passing week, the German’s continued exile from the starting eleven is beginning to show just how much Özil brings to the team and the team’s continued lack of depth in creative areas.
The other is a striking lack of quality depth in certain positions. An injury to Reiss Nelson meant that Eddie Nketiah had to fill in for a tired Nicolas Pépé, but a lack of depth for a left-footed centre-back has lead to Bosnian Sead Kolašinac having to fill in for Pablo Marí, which has revealed problems of its own. It begs the question as to why Kieran Tierney, who regularly plays as a left-footed centre-back for Scotland, is not entrusted to the position, while Kolašinac is moved out wide.
The other rather glaring mismatch in quality depth is at right-back, with Héctor Bellerín being replaced by new boy Cédric Soares, who seemed remarkably ill-suited to Arsenal’s gameplan last night. The Portuguese defender attempted eleven crosses and failed to reach a teammate once and his substitution in the 79th minute is unlikely to have annoyed any Arsenal fan outside of those that would have preferred it happen sooner.
Arsenal’s dominance of possession seems to add credence to the aforementioned issues as well. With a dominant 69% possession of the ball, Arsenal seemed unable to cope with Aston Villa’s low-block. Arsenal’s tactic seemed to be to draw Villa out, however, with a one-goal cushion Villa had no need to come out and Arsenal had no Plan B, resulting in a lot of sideways passing and half-attempted crosses.
Mikel Arteta spoke about the need for investment in the team and last night seemed to prove that the Spaniard was right and needs backing int he forthcoming transfer window, but for now, he has to turn his attentions to Watford for the final league game of the season and then to the FA Cup final against Chelsea.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
16.) Rob Holding
23.) David Luiz (Pépé 60′)
31.) Sead Kolašinac
17.) Cédric Soares (Willock 79′)
8.) Dani Ceballos
11.) Lucas Torreira (Xhaka 45′)
77.) Bukayo Saka (Tierney 60′)
30.) Eddie Nketiah
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
33.) Matt Macey
2.) Héctor Bellerín
3.) Kieran Tierney
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
19.) Nicolas Pépé
28.) Joe Willock
34.) Granit Xhaka
57.) Matthew Smith
Aston Villa Team:
29.) Pepe Reina
27.) Ahmed El Mohamady (Guilbert 25′)
15.) Ezri Konsa
40.) Tyrone Mings
18.) Matt Targett
7.) John McGinn (Lansbury 93′)
6.) Douglas Luiz
14.) Conor Hourihane (Nakamba 73′)
20.) Mbwana Samatta (Davis 72′)
10.) Jack Grealish (c)
Aston Villa subs:
25.) Orjan Nyland
8.) Henri Lansbury
11.) Marvelous Nakamba
21.) Anwar El Ghazi
24.) Frédéric Guilbert
30.) Kortney Hause
36.) Indiana Vassilev
39.) Keinan Davis