Unai Emery Aims to Switch Up His Defence Against Villa (Includes Tactical Analysis)

By Dean Gregory

Arsenal vs Aston Villa

Villa’s next match sees them travel to an Arsenal side who currently occupy 10th place. Their bright start has waned somewhat in their last three matches, culminating in a draw against rock-bottom Watford that they really should have won.

Meanwhile, Aston Villa’s start to the season has polarized fans; some think we should be doing better than we are, while others will argue that this season is progressing about as well as can be expected so far.

It’s a misnomer that this match is a “free hit” for Villa – if they go in all guns blazing, ready to take the game to their hosts, can they snatch all three points?

League Form

Arsenal – W W L D D

Villa – L L W L D

Manager Quotes

Unai Emery on Arsenal’s Defensive Issues

“The last match, Watford, was maybe the worst in our build up. But we are going to try, to work, to improve, to achieve our style.

“To build up with the goalkeeper and centre back is going to be our identity but we are going to share sometimes with long balls.

“Against Frankfurt we were different and decided more times to do long ball, earn metres on the pitch and after attack the space. We are going to decide what to do on Sunday, depending on Aston Villa”

Dean Smith on Villa’s Results

“It would worry me more if we weren’t creating the chances.

“I looked at the expected goals stats, and the West Ham game is the only one where we were expected to do more this season.

“There’s been a lot said about Monday night, but I think we played well in parts and should’ve won.”

Dean Smith on Arsenal

“Any team is beatable, we saw that with Norwich City last week.

When you go head-to-head with anyone, you have to believe that. We don’t fear teams, just always respect them.

But we also know what we’re about. We showed in the Spurs game last month we can go toe-to-toe with these teams.”

On Unai Emery…

“I did my pro-license studying his Valencia team. He was a very down to earth, humble guy. I enjoyed my time there. Our Sporting Director, Suso, worked with him there also.”

Tactical Analysis

So far this season, Unai Emery has set up his side in a variety of different formations, mixing and matching his players with extremely mixed results. For the Tottenham game, they dabbled in a 4-3-3 with Lacazette in the middle flanked by Aubameyang and Pepe. 

Against Watford, they started with a 4-3-1-2 with Aubameyang and Pepe in front of Ozil, with Xhaka as the central DM. The loss against Liverpool was much the same, only with Ceballos playing in the absent Ozil’s position instead of further back.

Even the back four have been inconsistent, with only Maitland-Niles starting every match, although Luiz and Sokratis seem to be the first choice centre-backs. This defence has so far shipped 8 goals in 4 games, conceding 19.2 shots per game. 

Watford, who are currently rock bottom of the league, managed 31 shots while Arsenal only had 7. With Sokratis having already made an error which directly led to a goal against Watford and Luiz averaging a 6.37 rating, 

Arsenal’s defence is not solid – at least not for one of the big six.

Arsenal’s best performance so far has been against Burnley. They started with a 4-2-3-1 with Lacazette as the lone striker, Ceballos behind him, Aubameyang and Nelson on the wings and Xhaka nowhere near the squad. In this match they controlled 67.5% possession with a passing success of 84%.

Despite this, 39% of the match was played in their own defensive third, while only 28% took place in Burnley’s. Arsenal managed 15 shots to Burnley’s 18 – 9 of which came from set pieces. From this, we can determine that Arsenal’s playing style is very slow and conservative, inviting pressure from the opposition. 

However, their attack is potent – 2 goals from 1.16 xG is proof. Breaking this down further, Ceballos’ two1 goals had an xG of 0.05 and 0.06, which means he had absolutely no business scoring them.

Arsenal can be incredibly dangerous, but they are far from invincible. With a direct and decisive approach, Villa can get something from this match.

One to Watch

Embed from Getty Images

With five goals from five games, an xG of 2.53 and an xG per 90 minutes of 0.51, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is as clinical as a striker needs to be.

This season he has played as a striker, a left-winger and an attacking-midfielder, and each time he has been equally as effective. He allows Arsenal to play a variety of attacking systems, and will no doubt keep Villa on their toes.

Memory Match

Arsenal 1-3 Aston Villa – 17th August 2013

A famous opening day victory. Villa stunned the Gunners when Benteke scored twice, cancelling out Giroud’s 6th minute goal, and Tony Moon stunned everybody by scoring the third.

Aston Villa Away kit discount

How it Could Play Out

Arsenal are very capable in attack, but Villa have a reasonably solid defence; only Liverpool, Man Utd and Leicester have conceded less than Villa (6).

Tyrone Mings is currently joint 1st in terms of blocks and headed clearances (10 and 21 respectively), while he is 2nd in overall clearances with 42. After the Arsenal game, Mings is highly likely to regain and consolidate his grip on these tables, as it’s fair to assume he and Engels will be kept busy.

In all but one game so far this season, Arsenal have spent more time in their own defensive third than in their oppositions; against Liverpool, 49% of the match was played in front of their own goal. 

Of course Villa aren’t capable of dominating a game as well as Liverpool are, but even against Watford, 37% of the match was spent in Arsenal’s defensive third, compared to just 19% in Watford’s. This suggests that Arsenal score their goals from fast breaks, but according to the Premier Leagues stats this is not the case – only one of their goals have been scored in this manner. The fact is, Arsenal relies heavily on the overwhelming speed and ability of their attacking players, particularly Aubameyang.

Much has been made of Arsenal’s iffy defence this season, but from our perspective, that should be taken with a pinch of salt. Arsenal sit 7th in the table in terms of goals conceded with eight, which is the 2nd worst of the Top 6 clubs behind Chelsea, who have conceded 11. This is regarded as bad considering they have aspirations of winning the league, but in terms of the league itself, they are more than holding their own. Villa cannot rely on an error-ridden game from Arsenal’s centre-backs – they will have to force those errors themselves.

Dean Smith’s vision is for Villa to be relentless in attack and tenacious in turning over possession when on the back foot. Liverpool have proven this tactic to be greatly effective against Arsenal when executed correctly, but so far Villa are not up to the speed Smith wants them to be. 

Villa will not be as potent as Liverpool, but if Watford can keep the game mostly in their half, Villa should be capable of doing so too.


Arsenal 2-1 Villa – It is difficult to imagine us getting anything from this fixture. Arsenal may not be invincible, but until Villa’s attack clicks into gear, Arsenal’s “weak defence” should prove strong enough to hold up. 

Also, Arsenal’s attack can be terrifying at times – Mings and Engels should be capable of weathering the storm, but stopping Arsenal entirely is a tough ask for anyone.

Listen to Before the Game…


  1. Up to the 60th minute mark (when we scored our second goal) you could see how bad the Arsenal defense were. This loss should fall on the shoulders on Deano: They have 10 men- go for the kill; get the 3rd goal. The Gunners are awful at the back…but deadly going forward- so WHY WOULD YOU LET THEM HAVE THE BALL and dictate the play so much in the last 30 minutes? If they are defending for 30 minutes, they cannot attack us. Really naive tactics Coach Smith…. You cost us 3 points… sigh.

Comments are closed.