12 January 2014

Aston Villa-Arsenal Match Preview: Parking the Bus vs. Getting Pinned Back

Revenge. Justice. Karma. Call it what you will. Our trip to Villa Park gives us a chance to get back at the Villans for spoiling the party. Before that infamous loss on opening day, we had gone unbeaten since 23 February, a run of thirteen matches that saw us overtake Tottenham to reclaim a place in this year's Champions League. Since losing to Aston Villa, we've been on an almost-as-impressive run, ending fourteen of twenty match-days in first place. We currently sit third thanks in part to having to wait until Monday to play, but our chances of reclaiming that position look good.

What? I should spend a little bit more?
We certainly shouldn't underestimate Villa, but the facts make it hard to resist—they've scored only seven goals at home while conceding twice that number, winning just twice from ten matches. Along the way, they've conceded first in seven of their last ten home-matches. They suffered a bit of a shock-loss in the FA Cup on Wednesday, losing to League One's Sheffield United, who themselves are struggling to stay out of the drop-zone.

With facts like these in mind, it would tempting to look forward to running away with the game. However, between Aston Villa's need to keep a point and an injury-sheet almost as long as our own, I'd imagine we'll see a lot of deep defending as Villa simply park that bus and hope to withstand our pressure. The trap that we might then set for ourselves is to apply non-stop pressure, trying to pick apart a defense that might look to keep ten men behind the ball. We saw it with Chelsea, and we saw it again with Cardiff. The trap that we'd set would be to pin Villa back through constant pressure, dominating possession and forcing Villa to defend with ten men. This would play right into their hands. Even if they do attempt the occasional counter-attack, it would likely be with Benteke and perhaps Agbonlahor (if he's available) while the rest hang back and hope for the best.

Therefore, it might be in our interests to concede possession from time to time to draw the Villans forward—why not give them the ball in their defensive third? Instead of pressing up the pitch right away, giving them a chance to explore would lure them out, giving us more room to work in behind. It worked to devastating effect against Tottenham (not that anyone is accusing them of setting up to defend) when Sagna found Gnabry on a counter, and he sluiced through a disorganized defense to find Cazorla wide open for that first goal. Similarly, once we did manage to score against Cardiff (87 minutes in, mind you), the second goal came in part because Cardiff were forced into moving up the pitch to find an equalizer.

After all, what's the point of possession if it's not generating chances? Yes, keeping the ball away from the opponent is a form of defending, but we've played plenty of matches in which we've dominated possession but ended up with fewer shots on goal than our opponents. Instead of playing into Villa's hands by passing around while nine or ten defenders shuffle-step side to side to clog the box, gift them the ball and drop back to see if they'll take the bait. Once we have them on the hook, we can pour forward and punish them. It is, after all, how Giroud scored five minutes into the opener—Rosický found the Ox sprinting down the wing, and Ox crossed to Giroud. Those last two are back from injury, although Ox may not make an appearance after playing for the U21s midweek.

At any rate, I do think we'll set things right with a win today, whether Arsène sees fit to follow my advice or go his own way. I rather suspect the latter, but we'll see.

My call: Aston Villa 0-2 Arsenal, with goals from Giroud and Ramsey.