Dean Smith Seeks a Return to High Standards Against Resurgent Arsenal

Aston Villa vs Arsenal

Aston Villa put in arguably their worst performance of the season against West Ham, and will welcome Arsenal to Villa Park as the last of a brutal run of fixtures.

Arsenal had an uncharacteristically bad run of form at the start of the season, but having arrested that in recent weeks, and they look a much stronger outfit overall. In a boost for Villa, the Gunners will arrive at Villa Park without two key players in David Luiz and Bernd Leno, after they both received red cards against Wolves last time out.

Still, the odds for a Villa double over Arsenal would have been long at the start of the season, considering it’s not happened since the 1992/93 season, so you would have been better off to have a look here if you wanted to try you luck.

League Form

Aston Villa – L W L W L

Arsenal – D W W D L

Manager Quotes

Dean Smith on West Ham performance

“After the Burnley game, I only showed (the players) the set-piece goal, which I thought was really poor defending from ourselves.

“After the West Ham game, our debrief was all three goals, as they were really poor defensively. I haven’t had cause to do that because we’ve set really high standards this season and I thought we dropped off it.

“It was the first time I thought we looked mentally tired more than anything, certainly there’s nothing in the numbers to suggest fatigue in any way, but it was the fifth game in 14 days, we’ve got our sixth game on Saturday in 18 days.

“The lads have to make sure they’re ready for each game because it’s a tough league and can be punishing if you’re not right.”

On his players

“The message was they’ve dropped below their standards. We’ve had some very high standards this season already and we keep speaking to the players, if we want to be a top team then we have to keep playing to those standards.

“For me, there were too many six out of 10’s on Wednesday night and if you drop to that level then you’re going to get beat. We found that out. The lads understand that as well and they know what they have to do to put it right.”

Mikel Arteta on Wolves result

“I don’t know how hard it is for everybody but we have to move on. We have a big game on Saturday and we need to go again. There are things to learn from the game, things we can’t control obviously and a lot of positives to take there, [so we must] move on, go for the next one and keep the momentum going.”

Tactical Analysis

Arsenal mostly use a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Alexandre Lacazette up front, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang behind him, Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey in defensive midfield and a back four of Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, David Luiz and Kieran Tierney. David Luiz will be unavailable for this match however, with Gabriel Magalhaes being his most likely replacement.

Over a topsy-turvy season, they have registered 51.8% possession and 84.5% pass success. Their possession stat has stabilised over the season after struggling to stay in some of their earlier games, while their pass success rate suggests they have never been incohesive when in possession. They were always a good team; they simply seemed to lack confidence.

They play a possession based quick passing game, generally trying to keep the ball on the ground and play through their opponents. They tend to favour the left side of the pitch with 41% of their progressive plays happening along that flank. With their full-backs providing width, their wingers can cut in and create space for overlaps.

Arsenal have scored 27 goals from 30.10 xG this season, an under-performance of 3.10 xG that illustrates their struggles at the start of the season. They have never had any real trouble creating chances, but they have struggled to make use of them until recent games.

Defensively they have conceded 22 goals from 29.05 xGA, a surprising over-performance which shows how consistently good their defense has been. They concede an alarming amount of chances showing how easily they allowed teams to play through them earlier in the season, but their defenders have always been more than up for the challenge.

Forget what they were like at the start of this season – Arsenal are a much stronger prospect now than they were then, and they will be hoping to continue their turnaround and take their place back amongst the top six.

One to Watch

Bukayo Saka has been the standout performer of this Arsenal side this season, his WhoScored rating of 7.04 being the only one in the team above 7. He has five goals and two assists, per game he takes 2.3 shots, makes 1.2 key passes and is fouled twice, showing how tricky and dangerous he is going forward.

Memory Match

Aston Villa 1-0 Arsenal – 21-07-2020

A recent memory, Trezeguet’s 27th minute strike was enough to secure the most vital of wins for Villa. This result lifted them out of the relegation zone one game before the end of the season, ultimately securing survival. They were good value for this result too, as they denied Arsenal from registering a single shot on target.

Previous Result

Arsenal 0-3 Aston Villa – 08-11-2020

Arguably Villa’s best performance of the season. Once again Arsenal were heavily restricted in their chances at goal and Villa hit them hard on the break. A forced Saka own goal early on was eventually added to by two quickfire Watkins goals, featuring a Grealish assist that saw him silence critics accusing him of being slow and lightweight.

How it could play out

A major COVID-19 outbreak followed by a tough run of fixtures has seen an indifferent Villa in recent weeks, culminating in a lacklustre performance against West Ham where they barely seemed to show up.

It was all too easy for West Ham to cut through Villa’s midfield and put Martinez under pressure, who himself had an uncharacteristically bad game. It is clear that everything is taking its toll on the players; Smith may be reluctantly considering starting some fresh legs this next game, despite his insistence that the fatigue is purely mental.

Smith has talked a fair bit about how important a consistent starting XI is to ongoing success and as a result is accused of not rotating enough, and not making the best possible use of his subs. However true any of this may be, it is certainly that Morgan Sanson will be fast-tracked into the fray over the next few weeks.

Having made his debut late in the last match, the French midfielder will soon be a starter unless Villa’s current midfield men don’t sort out what’s made them a soft touch against the likes of the Hammers, Saints and Burnley in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s own selection woes throw another spanner into the works. Keeper Bernd Leno, who they chose to keep rather than Emi Martinez, will be suspended and with backup keeper Mat Ryan out injured, third choice keeper Runar Runarsson will most likely start.

Their other absentee, David Luiz, is arguably easier to deal with. Gabriel has put in competent performances when he has been called on and will be the most likely to step in for Luiz in this game. David Luiz is also never too far away from a howler these days either, so some Arsenal fans joke that this is actually a good thing for them. This remains to be seen.


Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal

Runarsson, if he plays, will surely struggle to cope with the likes of Grealish and Watkins, but an out of sorts Villa team are equally likely to struggle against a resurgent Arsenal. Recent performances suggest this will be tough for Villa despite Arsenal’s own issues. It certainly won’t be as easy as last time.