Another standout performance from Jack Wilshere secured a vital away win for his side to send them back to the top of the table.
Arsenal set out in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, making five changes from the side that defeated rivals Spurs in the FA Cup. Fabianski, Vermaelen, Arteta, Rosicky and Walcott dropped out, with Szczesny, Koscielny, Flamini, Ozil and Giroud stepping in in their stead.
Aston Villa set out in a 3-5-2 for only the 4th time this season, abandoning the 4-4-2 shape that saw them clinch a 1-0 victory over fellow relegation candidates Sunderland. Ciaran Clark was the additional centre back, with Andy Weimann the unlucky sacrificed midfielder. It did mean, however, that out of form striker Christian Benteke could continue to enjoy a strike partner, in the form of Gabby Agbonlahor.
Lambert the tactician
Speaking as someone who enjoys the tactical side of the game, a match involving a Paul Lambert side is always interesting to watch. In his first season in the Premier League, in charge of Norwich, Lambert employed a higher number of formations than any other manager. This penchant for tactical variation has continued throughout his stint at Villa Park and it was certainly on display yesterday evening.
Lambert’s decision to begin the game with a 3-5-2 meant that Arsenal’s full backs were free. Focusing their play primarily down the right, as is the norm for Arsenal, this meant that Bacary Sagna often enjoyed time and space in possession early on, as Villa left wing back Antonio Luna occupied himself with Serge Gnabry. Sagna delivered two dangerous crosses in the first quarter of an hour. The first found Olivier Giroud, who shot wide from the centre of the box. The second narrowly missed the Frenchman’s head.
After 20 minutes, Villa’s middle centre back Nathan Baker was knocked unconscious by a powerful strike and had to be substituted. Lambert decided at this point to change the shape of his side, rather than introduce another centre back. He brought on Leandro Bacuna, asking him to play ahead of Matthew Lowton on the right of midfield. Lowton was now a regular right full back, and Villa were operating with a back four. Indeed it was a reversion to the 4-4-2 that was so successful against the Black Cats, with the presumed intention in this game of shutting down the threat from the full back positions. It did, but it opened up the midfield too. Unintended consequences and all that.
In the 34th minute, Lowton allowed Arsenal left full Nacho Monreal to run off the back of him and receive a pass from Mesut Ozil. Ashley Westwood had been attracted to the ball when Ozil was in possession and was not aware of the run of Jack Wilshere behind him. Monreal squared to Wilshere at the edge of the box, who finished brilliantly with a low drive. One could argue that if Villa still had three centre midfielders, Westwood would have been in his previous deeper position in front of the defence and the goal would not have occurred.
Immediately from the kick-off, Villa were 0-2 down. Fabian Delph lost the ball under pressure from Wilshere, who delivered a deft lofted pass between Vlaar and Lowton to match the clever run of Giroud. Giroud’s first touch was impeccable (the second not so much) and he finished with aplomb. Game over, you would have thought,
Realising his error, Lambert changed things again at half-time. This time, he organised his players into a 4-3-1-2 shape, with Bacuna going into the no. 10 position behind the front two. Villa only had 29% of the ball in the first half. With 4 players in the centre of midfield, Lambert was hoping to increase that figure significantly in the second period.
He was immediately successful. In the ten minutes after the break, Villa had 51% of the ball, a huge turnaround in fortunes. The new shape did also mean that the Arsenal full backs were free again, however. In the 57th minute, Monreal reminded us of that by running untracked from defence, beating Lowton in a one-on-one in the box, before being poleaxed by a crunching Ron Vlaar covering tackle. He was replaced by Kieran Gibbs soon after.
Arsenal’s attacking midfielders, particularly Cazorla and Ozil had enjoyed huge freedom in the first half, attempting 66 and 59 passes respectively in that period – huge figures for players that high up the field. That changed drastically in the second as Lambert’s shift in formation clogged up the middle of the field. Cazorla only attempted a further 26 passes in the second period. He was also responsible for his side’s concession of a goal.
Cazorla was caught in possession under pressure in the 76th minute on Arsenal’s left near the touchline. Lowton received a pass from Bacuna and delivered a fine cross into the corridor of uncertainty. Benteke had moved behind Mertesacker, and finished at the back post. Game on!
The hope was short lived however. Villa disappointed in the last quarter of the game, their sole tactic being to punt the ball up to Benteke. To be fair, the tactic did almost pay off in the last minute of normal time – Lowton with the cross from a central area, again finding Benteke at the back post. This time he failed to hit the net.
Arsenal by this point had switched to a 4-1-4-1, with Flamini holding, a familiar tactic when defending a lead this season.
Lambert’s decisions from the touchline had a huge impact on his side’s result here. His first switch almost lost them the tie, and his second almost saved it. He will be pleased to see Christian Benteke get on the scoresheet for the first time in 12 games. The defensive performances of Ron Vlaar and Antonio Luna will also be heartening. Matthew Lowton atoned for his error for the first goal with some excellent attacking play, creating 4 chances from right back, including 1 assist.
He will be disappointed with his midfield however. Westwood showed poor awareness for the first goal. Delph was dispossessed for the second, and lost the ball 5 times in total through poor touches or opposition challenges, far too high for a midfield player. Karim El Ahmadi had next to no influence on the game, only attempting 16 passes in his 73 minutes on the pitch. Dreadful.
Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, will be delighted with the resilience that his side demonstrated at the death. He clearly instructed his side to be very conservative in the second period. Both full backs were unoccupied due to Villa’s shape, but rarely made overlaps, presumably due to concerns over Villa’s threat on the counter from two strikers. Indeed Sagna only attempted 1 cross in the second 45.
He will be disappointed with the contribution of his band of three behind Giroud. Gnabry was anonymous and deserved to be removed for Rosicky. Cazorla created no chances whatsoever, despite attempting 92 passes over the course of the game. Ozil created 3 chances for team-mates but all were long range efforts.
The star man was Wilshere. He again demonstrated what a threat he is from deep, completing 3 dribbles, scoring one goal and assisting another. He also showed his range of passing, a quality of his that is somewhat underrated, completing 9 out of 10 attempted long passes on the night. This is why Arsenal are not missing a player of Aaron Ramsey’s calibre. High praise.