The weekend's most effective tactics: Aston Villa

Aston Villa’s season opener against Arsenal at the Emirates was the surprise of the weekend as Paul Lambert’s side beat the Gunners 3-1.

Whilst Arsenal fans and manager Arsene Wenger may have some cause for complaint at referee Anthony Taylor’s handling of the game, credit must go to Lambert and his Villa team who employed undoubtedly the most effective tactics of the opening weekend.

Slow the tempo

Lambert’s side were in no rush from the first whistle – they went into the fixture prepared to play the long game and it paid dividends in the end. They sat back and absorbed the pressure from Arsenal in the opening 20 minutes and slowed the tempo down. Over the course of the game Arsenal had 54% of possession to Villa’s 46%. The work they did without the ball was as crucial to the victory as the work they did when they had it.

Break up the play

To slow the tempo of the game and take the intensity out of Arsenal’s game, Villa made a number of tactical and professional fouls – although the Gunners were penalized by the big decisions, Villa conceded 18 fouls to Arsenal’s 15. In midfield and defence they were happy to take a yellow card for the team with five Villa players going into Taylor’s book over 96 minutes.

Man mark in midfield

Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky didn’t have enough impact on the game – the former especially was completely denied space and time on the ball by Villa’s central midfielders El Ahmadi along with Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood and captain Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark (who came on after 17 minutes for Nathan Baker) were there behind.

On the flanks, Antonio Luna and Matthew Lowton isolated Arsenal’s widemen – they forced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott to put in crosses and wouldn’t allow either to cut inside. The chances the two Gunner’s wingers had were from central areas. The younger of the England pair had a shot from just behind the penalty spot and Walcott found little joy when he attempted to cut inside.

Oxlade-Chamberlain did get an assist in for his cross to Olivier Giroud on the Arsenal goal but Villa remedied their defensive culpability from the goal which was Arsenal’s exploitation of a high line and they played much deeper for the remainder of the game.

Sit in deep

Without the ball, Villa kept their shape and compacted into a tight defensive unit in their own half – Arsenal may have seemed lack penetration but that is to Villa’s credit as they denied them the space in behind, pulling Arsenal’s midfielders further and further into forward positions, ultimately making space for Villa to exploit on the break.


As mentioned, Lambert and his side were unfazed by Arsenal’s majority share of possession – they were probably expecting that. That’s standard practice at the Emirates. They sat back and absorbed the pressure, drawing the Gunners further forward and then as soon as the North Londoners’ move broke down, Villa pounced to devastating effect in the end.

All three of Villa’s goals were made by catching Arsenal on the break – the first penalty was a result of a counter-attack leaving Wojciech Szczesny one-on-one with Christian Benteke. The second was a result of a last-ditch tackle on Andreas Weimann as Laurent Koscielny desperately tried to get back in position after chasing back when Santi Cazorla gave away possession in Villa’s defensive half.

Gaby Agbonlahor was immense and deserved to be Man of the Match – he played in a number of through balls and over the top balls to Christian Benteke and Antonio Luna’s third completely exposed a stretched and desperate 10-man team as Arsenal were again punished for playing such a high line.

Exploiting Arsenal’s high line

Every manager in the Premier League knows how Arsenal play and Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to adapt or change his system has made them predictable opponents.

They push their defenders so far forward, they’re often over the half-way line when the Gunners lose possession, making for easy pray for centre-forwards with the intelligence and movement of Benteke and the pace of Agbonlahor.

From an Arsenal point of view, having a slowcoach like Per Mertesacker pushing so far forward is a recipe for disaster, which is why Koscielny gets booked and carded so often, because he’s usually the one ardently chasing back to get in position. Teams knows this and managers are well aware of Wenger’s system and Lambert really did his homework with the team well drilled on their individual duties.

Target Man

Christian Benteke is such a powerful and dangerous force up front that Villa can send any kind of ball to him and he can make something from nothing. Every goal kick Brad Guzan took was aimed straight to the big Belgian and he invariably controlled it and laid it off to a teammate. Arsenal simply couldn’t cope with his power in the end and his movement off ball was so intelligent, it seemed almost effortless.

With Agbonlahor’s driving runs, especially in the second half, Benteke just had to find space and that’s exactly what he did for both the penalty’s given. His technique and physical prowess shook off what resistance Arsenal put up to him and in the air he reigned supreme.

image: © wonker

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