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    HomeSportWhy Mikel Arteta’s tactical approach against Aston Villa made sense

    Why Mikel Arteta’s tactical approach against Aston Villa made sense

    After Arsenal crashed to a damaging 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta inevitably came under scrutiny for electing to change his system.

    Arteta reverted to the approach he used earlier in the season, with the much-maligned Oleksandr Zinchenko coming in at left-back, Gabriel Jesus playing up front, and Kai Havertz switching to an attacking-midfield role, having played up front in recent weeks. Judge solely according to the scoreline, and this was a disastrous move. But, as ever, things are a little more complex.

    Those two changes essentially went hand in hand. Jakub Kiwior performed poorly at left-back in the midweek 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich, so Zinchenko’s return wasn’t a huge surprise. Takehiro Tomiyasu is another option, but Arteta’s use of Zinchenko was a more positive choice that helped Arsenal dominate possession in the first half.

    In turn, that allowed for the use of an attacking option in the left-centre midfield slot, as Zinchenko drifts into that zone, freeing up a midfielder to become a bonus attacker. That’s the role played by Havertz, one of a new breed of curious players who have operated both as a No 8 and a No 9 this season.

    Throughout the first half, there were some promising moments. Villa’s high line has caused opponents serious problems this season, and the defence is particularly adept at stepping up to catch a striker offside when they start their runs high up against them. They have more problems against runners from deep, and therefore Havertz starting his runs from midfield rather than attack made sense.

    Zinchenko was often the player who tried to find those runs, including this lofted ball in behind, from which Havertz took a heavy touch…

    There was also this longer pass, which put Havertz through on goal — although there was a delayed offside flag after the move came to an end.

    Then it was Martin Odegaard finding the run of Havertz into that channel. Here, he was outmuscled by the Villa centre-back Diego Carlos, who was named man of the match at full time. The fact he was so important to Villa’s performance, particularly in the first half, shows the extent to which Havertz’s movement caused problems.

    Here’s another, slightly different type of situation: Havertz exploiting space in the channel to get onto a Leandro Trossard ball in behind. The shot is a little tame, but the danger was there.

    Granted, more of an issue was the performance of Jesus, who has struggled to recapture the goalscoring form of his early games at the club since suffering injury problems last season.

    Here, his movement is great to get onto Odegaard’s ball in behind, and his awareness to bring in Bukayo Saka is also encouraging.

    But then Jesus checked and held his position on the edge of the box rather than darting towards goal — not a huge crime here, but a common theme when he’s not in goalscoring form. Another thing to note is Trossard at the far post, calling for a pass.

    Here’s a comparable situation. Note that Trossard again calling for the ball on the far side. Odegaard plays the crucial pass, and Saka has the ball in behind down the right.

    Jesus elects to peel off to the far post, but can’t quite get there quickly enough to arrive in behind Carlos. A better option here might have been going in between Villa’s centre-backs, and making Saka’s pass easier.

    Instead, Saka tries to drive the ball across the box, and it is blocked.

    Here’s Odegaard releasing Saka yet again. Jesus, this time, is in a good position waiting for a ball between defence and goalkeeper. Saka, spotting players at the far post, lofts a cross over everyone’s head.

    Jesus made some further bad decisions. In Arsenal’s next attack, Saka crosses from the left for Jesus at the far post, and he tries to beat Emi Martinez at the near post with his header.

    This was never going to work; a looped header towards the far post, where Trossard was lingering, would have been better.

    This Arsenal move involving Jesus, Odegaard, Saka and Ben White down the right was excellent and resulted in Jesus having a blocked shot.

    He’s probably within his rights to take on this shot, although Trossard was making an excellent run for a pullback, in space on the penalty spot.

    Arsenal constantly got into advantageous positions and then struggled to match the cross with the right run.

    This situation, in which Zinchenko overlapped Trossard and then chipped the ball to the far post, was particularly frustrating. Arsenal had no-one there, with Saka down injured.

    Saka, meanwhile, also struggled to make the right choices. Yet another excellent pass from Odegaard put him in behind Lucas Digne…

    But the problem was a slight miscontrol with the outside of his left foot, which took him wider than he would have liked.

    That meant Pau Torres could get across and close down the angle, convincing Saka to shoot at the near post rather than send the ball across goal.

    But Arsenal were on top throughout the first half and, while they’d just narrowly avoided conceding when a defensive mix-up allowed Ollie Watkins in to hit the post, Arteta’s side really should have gone 1-0 up five minutes before half-time.

    For all Odegaard’s incisive passing, this chance simply came from a lucky bounce: his shot was deflected into the path of Jesus. For once, Jesus made the right choice. For once, Trossard was provided with the pass he wanted.

    The behind-the-goal angle demonstrates the extent to which this really should have been a goal.

    Evidently, while Arsenal failed to win the game in the first half, they very much lost it in the second.

    Villa’s near-complete dominance was a marked contrast from the first half. “The only way to win here is to keep possession,” said Unai Emery afterwards. “If we tried to run behind for 90 minutes, it would have been difficult. The plan after half-time was to continue building up, avoiding their press and with (Nicolo) Zaniolo, we started holding up the ball more.”

    Arteta’s substitutions can certainly be questioned, even if they were partly to avoid fatigue ahead of a testing second leg at Bayern.

    He indicated that Odegaard’s substitution, with Emile Smith Rowe replacing him, was for fitness reasons. The other change at the same point was maybe more significant: Jesus departed and was replaced by Jorginho, rather than another attacker. At that point, Arsenal weren’t trying to finish off moves, simply trying to gain some kind of foothold as Villa were piling on the pressure.

    But Arteta’s starting approach had merit. The runs of Havertz into the channel caused Villa more problems than anything else. That Arsenal failed to capitalise on these situations was about some bad decisions, some bad finishing, some solid defending and goalkeeping, and a bit of bad luck.

    That doesn’t hide the fact, of course, that this result might well have cost Arsenal the title.

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