Imagine you hadn’t heard the final score. You pick up the basic match facts and you see that Arsenal had 64% of possession on Saturday. You look at the pass completion rates and see that while Arsenal’s was 87%, Aston Villa’s was only 70%. At first glance it seems like a fairly standard Arsenal home performance. Not too much to worry about there.
But then you look at the number of shots each side had: Arsenal had 15 to Villa’s 11. The picture begins to emerge of Arsenal being watchful in possession, Villa more direct. The really telling stat, though, is that Villa had six efforts on target to Arsenal’s four. Villa, in other words, were far more efficient with the ball.
To an extent, that is natural. Teams who seek to retain the ball will often find that, say, a two-to-one advantage in possession is not replicated as a two-to-one advantage in chances created. Often possession is a defensive tool, used to keep the ball away from the opponent, particularly if a team has the lead. But it might be expected that possession leads to a better quality of chance (and this is always the issue with those who measure domination purely in terms of chance creation: a speculative 40-yard shot is clearly not as good a chance as an open goal from inside the box). Manifestly for Arsenal that did not happen.
That six of Arsenal’s efforts were blocked as opposed to only one of Villa’s is logical given that Villa kept men behind the ball, and the majority of their chances came on the break after possession had been regained, but what is concerning for Arsenal is the lack of tackles they made in central areas, particularly given how Villa ran at them. Neither Per Mertesacker nor Laurent Koscielny made a clean tackle all game (Koscielny did, but was penalised for it, conceding the second penalty; still, while he is due sympathy in being wrongly convicted, from a tactical point of view it’s not healthy for a player to be called into a sliding last-ditch tackle in the box), while the two holding midfielders, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere made just six between them. Villa’s two centre-backs, Ron Vlaar and Nathan Baker then Ciaran Clark, made three, with the midfield contributing a further 11.
That’s not necessarily a revealing statistic: after all, given how Arsenal dominated possession you would expect Villa to make more tackles, while interceptions are always preferable. Arsenal’s back six made 10 interceptions to the 14 of Villa’s midfield and defence which, given the difference in possession seems reasonable. The problems Villa caused Arsenal, though, were in running at them – and that’s when tackling becomes vital.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, understandably, took most of the plaudits, and was described as “unplayable” by his coach Paul Lambert who suggested he should be recalled to the England squad, but almost as significant was Fabian Delph. The midfieler made six dribbles during the game, the joint most in the Premier League at the weekend, helping bridge the gap between Villa’s back four and deep midfield and the front three. (And that Villa were prepared to play with a front three, although it perhaps caused them some problems at the back, was surely one of the reasons they looked so potent on the break).
Take the first goal. Agbonlahor swept by Wilshere, forcing Koscielny to come out to close him down. Perhaps he was mistaken in doing so, but the key point is that he was forced to make that decision by Agbonlahor being allowed a run at an exposed centre. Agbonlahor, already accelerating, knocked the ball past the centre-back into a space Mertesacker hadn’t moved across to cover, and suddenly was through against Wojciech Szczesny, who mistimed his challenge fractionally to concede the penalty.
Both the Delph effort that hit the post and the second penalty stemmed from Villa’s midfield dispossessing Arsenal players – first Wilshere then Santi Cazorla – showing the value of tackles in an attacking sense. Arsenal were aggrieved at Villa’s aggression – although they only committed four more fouls than the home side – but it was in those central exchanges that the game was won and lost. Arsenal, of course, were without Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta, who can operate at the back of midfield, which perhaps provides some explanation for their lack of bite, but you wonder whether, of all the players they have missed out on this summer, Luiz Gustavo, who made four tackles on his Wolfsburg debut, is the one they will regret not pursuing.
And that, really, is Arsenal’s narrative. In other circumstances, this might have been seen as a game in which they played reasonably well but were undone by indifferent refereeing and moments of laxity, but this was a defeat that felt like an inevitable consequence of transfer dithering.