MARTIN KEOWN TALKS TACTICS: Watch out Aston Villa, Arsenal’s runners from deep can do DAMAGE – but Dean Smith will be wise to it if Mikel Arteta tries to copy West Ham’s special plan to stop Jack Grealish
- Though Arsenal lost midweek to Wolves, they played some of their best football
- Nicolas Pepe is finally showing his skills, and Granit Xhaka was very effective
- Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka already look like the future of Arsenal
- But Mikel Arteta’s men need to cut out the red cards and remain disciplined
- Containing Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish will be key to any potential Gunners win
Aston Villa and Arsenal lost in midweek but in this season of all seasons you cannot get too bogged down by a defeat. You have to put it behind you and push on.
In 2018-19 — the last Premier League season not impacted by the coronavirus — the top three teams lost only 13 times between them. The current top three have lost 12 already.
Consistency is hard to achieve, but Arsenal had gone on a seven-game unbeaten run before that freak defeat at Wolves, and the first half an hour was the best I’ve seen Mikel Arteta’s side play.
Despite losing midweek, Arsenal played some of their best football to date under Mikel Arteta
Thomas Partey (L) moved the ball forward and Nicolas Pepe (R) played like a record signing
I’ve watched Arsenal in the past and wondered who was going to play passes forward from midfield. Thomas Partey was doing that at Molineux, while Granit Xhaka was extremely effective alongside him. Nicolas Pepe was playing to a level you’d expect of a record signing, while Bukayo Saka was causing Wolves all sorts of problems.
Emile Smith Rowe was always on the move, finding pockets of space and breaking to press alongside Alexandre Lacazette. Then the red cards cost Arsenal.
In 2001-02, after receiving too many reds, we held a team meeting with Arsene Wenger in which the question was asked: are we trying to win this title with 10 men? Arsenal had a psychologist, David Elliott, who talked to us about the importance of discipline and staying in control.
‘You have to stay above the line,’ Elliott said, and that became our mental strategy. We had an ambitious, aggressive, determined group, but we agreed not to go below the line and went on to be crowned champions.
No Premier League side have received more red cards – five – than Arsenal this season so far
No Premier League side have received more red cards than Arsenal this season (five), and Arteta has overseen nine since taking charge. That was their downfall at Wolves and they need to bounce back against a side one place above them in the table.
Arteta remains in the midst of a rebuild. I’ve never seen such a big turnover of players at Arsenal as the one this season. There has been a big shake-up, with more than 10 first-team players exiting, on loan and permanently. That includes Emiliano Martinez, the goalkeeper who will start for Villa.
Arteta has streamlined his squad, bringing in physical players such as Gabriel and Partey. There has been a resurgence in Rob Holding’s performances. He’s become a key member of a defence which, before the Wolves loss, had conceded only one goal in six games.
Arteta has moved away from using a back five to a back four, which is allowing them to operate in the opposition half more.
A big bonus is how Saka and Smith Rowe already look like the future of Arsenal. Using the academy is an important ingredient, but you also need a core group of seasoned players between the ages of 23 and 30 to challenge for the top four and beyond. That was always in Wenger’s blueprint.
Young stars Bukayo Saka (L) and Emile Smith Rowe (R) already look like the future for Arsenal
The corresponding fixture between Villa and Arsenal last season saw the hosts win 1-0 to move out of the bottom three with one game to go. Securing survival saved Dean Smith his job and Villa are the most improved team in the Premier League.
Smith’s work in developing this side has been outstanding. His acquisitions — Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traore, Matty Cash, Ross Barkley, Martinez — have gone straight into the team and are playing major parts.
Villa now play around 15 yards further up the pitch and are defending much better as a unit.
The array of quality around Jack Grealish is a big reason why he has created the most chances of any player this season and is also the most fouled.
West Ham manager David Moyes had a special plan to stop Grealish on Wednesday night, effectively playing two full backs on the right-hand side of the pitch. Right back Vladimir Coufal and right winger Ryan Fredericks doubled up on Grealish.
If Jack Grealish is contained by Arsenal, expect him to be moved somewhere more effective
West Ham tied him down, and I was surprised Villa waited until the final 15 minutes to move him to a more central position and then over to the right, where he was able to show his quality and assist Watkins for his goal.
If that happens again on Saturday, I’m certain Grealish will be moved sooner. Another concern for Villa was the ease with which they were breached by West Ham’s midfield runners from deep, with Tomas Soucek opening the scoring that way.
Arsenal will play in a similar way, with midfielders breaking from deep and Smith Rowe joining the attack. Counteracting that is something Villa will need to do better if they are to get a result.
Defeat in midweek will have hurt these teams and their managers. Smith’s side have won more games in the first half of this season than they did in the whole of the last. Now Villa want to push for a place in the top eight.
For Arteta, although Arsenal are still rebuilding, such are the expectations at that club that he has to make it into Europe.
This feels like a must-win game for Arsenal.
Arsenal can have come success against Aston Viilla by making darting runs from deep
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