In the first of a series of matchday articles in which I analyse the history of Arsène Wenger sides’ approaches and performances against the respective opposition, today see’s the fixture of Arsenal vs. midlanders Aston Villa fall under the microscope.
Essentially, the game has evolved considerably since Wenger took the helm at Arsenal Football Club. As such, the way that the first team will set up at Villa Park today differs greatly from past Arsenal sides taking on the Villans whose Premier League journey, since the 92-93 inaugural season, has seen highs and lows, changes in ownership, in manager and in the fans’ expectations and certainly some memorable clashes against the Gunners.
Today’s focus is primarily on what I perceive to be the biggest shift in the team’s footballing ethos, namely the emphasis on football that requires every player to operate in coordination with one another. Furthermore, I identify the culprits behind team balance issues in the past and on the contrary praise the current midfield maestro whose play has set the precedent for our current success.
Arsène Wenger has built many Arsenal teams during his 17 plus years in charge of the club but the Arsenal of today, who could retain top spot with a victory over Aston Villa on Monday night, are the most balanced and collectively cohesive side that Wenger has had at his disposal since Highbury for sure. There can be no avoiding that over recent seasons Arsenal have relied heavily on the exploits of one or two star players. Henry, Fabregas and Van Persie all won games for the club single-handedly in their Arsenal heyday and whilst this season’s team sure enough has its leaders and key men the strategy for success is now a far more collaborative one. Taking nothing away from the three players mentioned previously I feel that their presence and role within matches at times detracted from the team’s potential.
In a cycle that begun with the club’s all-time leading goalscorer Thierry Henry and ended when Van Persie departed for the red part of Manchester, players felt obligated to put these talents on the ball more often than necessary and at times without purpose and instead of better options.
Arsenal’s current success is due to the entire squad sharing responsibility; that’s not to say that Wenger doesn’t want some players on the ball more than others. The key difference however between Arsenal now and Arsenal teams with Henry, RVP and Cesc in the side is that there isn’t the same obligation felt by teammates to put the star man in possession regardless of other options. Good players demand the ball from their teammates by positioning themselves as the best available passing option. These players definitely did that but at times it was their ego that drew the ball to their feet.
It’s no coincidence that Cesc Fabregas’ performances improved drastically in the wake of Henry’s departure to the Nou Camp. Cesc’s game revolves around killer passes and breaking into space in attacking areas. Granted, Fabregas was already seen as a future star whilst Henry was still at the club but without the Frenchman’s presence Cesc was afforded more freedom and responsibility. Instead of automatically looking for Henry upon receiving the ball Fabregas could now look up and see multiple players moving ahead of him who were similarly sparked into action by the knowledge that they had to make themselves available because Thierry wasn’t going to win it on his own this time.
Ironically the same issues arose with Fabregas at times although as a central midfielder and the team’s playmaker this was less of an issue. The problem with Henry and Van Persie seeing as much possession as they did was that they would drop deep to receive the ball, almost as if they were playing in midfield. This meant that a central striker role would be vacated which was particularly damaging more recently as Van Persie played as a lone front man. With Cesc on the ball in the middle of the park he could still feed the striker. With Thierry and Robin doing the same there was no one in front of them to supply for, hence it not being uncommon for them to attempt to beat the opposition defence alone. Fortunately they were both exceptionally talented players and often enough their solo forays were successful; something that allows this flaw in their game to mostly be overlooked.
Conversely, the Arsenal players will travel to Villa Park knowing that 3 points and top spot will only be theirs if they perform as a team as they have done throughout the campaign thus far. In thanks significantly to the metronome-like Arteta who acts as the fulcrum in the side, seamlessly transitioning play from defence to attack. The experienced Spaniard can be seen as the embodiment of Arsenal’s football nowadays. In addition to snuffing out the threat of opposition’s creative midfield players and a penchant for keeping the ball moving his work rate inspires energy in his surrounding teammates and he despises losing.
In the opposite way to the shirking of responsibility that some Arsenal players fell victim too in the past, Arteta’s frequent exchanging of possession adds dynamism to the team. Players who are expecting the ball think proactively about their next action and so with Arteta in the team it means that we are treated to a more considered Arsenal when players receive the ball from him they can either give it straight back and retain possession or they can turn and begin an attack.
These two scenarios occur so commonly because when Arteta plays a pass to a player under mild pressure, something that he’s not afraid to do, he makes sure that he’s positioned to get the ball back first time if necessary. The other case where players receive the ball from Mikel and turn occurs because of the first circumstance; his quick one-two passing draws opposition players towards the ball and creates space.
Rapid conversion from defending to attacking and a drive to put right the feeble opening weekend defeat at home to Villa should be expected from an Arsenal side that has recovered from a turbulent few weeks over the festive period to record consecutive victories in their last four games in all competitions. Villa have won only 2 of their 10 games at Villa Park so far this season in the Premier League and lost their last 6 at home in a row.
The athleticism of Fabian Delph could well be a disruption to a midfield that otherwise you would anticipate Arsenal dominating. Ashley Westwood, who is responsible for putting the ball into dangerous offensive positions, will have to be denied time to pick his pass and his proposed targets: Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann all need to be watched carefully by the defence and tracked by our midfielders.
Aston Villa under Paul Lambert are a far different and for now, a less intimidating opponent than they have been in the recent past. The days of Young, Milner, Carew, Laursen, Mellberg and co. are distant memories to a Villa faithful who will have been frustrated by the club’s downturn in fortunes after sustaining a genuine threat to the European places for a few seasons not too long ago.
As is, Benteke is the current player with the ability to torment Arsenal though he’s had a desperate season in front of goal. The powerful Belgian forward has failed to build on the brace he netted at the Emirates on matchday 1, adding only two more goals in the league since then.
Villa do try to play an all-encompassing style of football but simply don’t have the players at their disposal to match Arsenal. It’s fortunate then that we don’t still play with reliance on a few individuals as we have done in the past. With that tactic, the star man has to perform; if not then the team playing collaboratively, something that Villa will do, wins the day. Yet, Arsenal will continue to strive to do the same as they have done up until now and I find comfort in the thought of Villa trying to take us on at a game that we are frankly the masters of.
Their manager Paul Lambert will be hoping that his side can replicate the result from August’s reverse fixture, a game in which Arsenal mistakes, some contentious decisions but above all an impressive performance from Villa were Arsenal’s downfall. Lambert will bemoan not having seen the same levels of confidence and control often enough since that day and I wouldn’t expect that his spirits will have much improved after the final whistle on Monday night.