How Arsenal can create more vs Villarreal this time around

Arsenal started last week’s game with a couple of obvious chinks in the armour:

  1. No striker as Smith Rowe played up front
  2. And Xhaka continuing to substitute as leftback

But those weren’t the only reasons why Arsenal created so little against Villarreal. There are several chinks that need fixing because while trailing 1-2, The Gunners now have to improve their chance creation.

Having rewatched the game, these were some of Arsenal’s biggest tactical issues in the first leg in Spain and how to potentially fix them.

So one-dimensional

Villarreal set up in a narrow 4-4-2 out of possession, usually slightly higher up the pitch, with very little room between the defensive line and the midfield.

Playing through the middle was like squeezing your foot into a shoe two sizes too small — even with a man advantage in that area (Arsenal played their usual 4-2-3-1).

All screenshots TV2 Sport

Two workarounds against this defensive shape are:

  1. Overlapping fullbacks
  2. Long balls over the top

The fullback issue is simple: play attacking fullbacks, not Xhaka (or Chambers).

Xhaka made 0 crosses against Villarreal to Chambers’ 4. The reason for that, as you can see in the image above, was Xhaka’s central positioning rather than wide. Their touch map also shows a missing green smog on the left wing, which was a less blocked off lane towards goal compared to the middle of the pitch.

Having overlapping fullbacks will often, through a chain of events, pull an opposing midfielder out of position, which could free up space in the congested Villarreal midfield.

Arteta had Ceballos underlap when Pepe was out wide as a compromise, which did exactly that and more in this example.

This is worth bringing along to the Emirates. The midfield underlap is important with or without Tierney on Thursday. But to avoid being as one-dimensional as the Gunners were in Spain, more is needed.

The second part, long balls over the defensive line, Arsenal did utilise in moderation.

It was mainly used towards Pepe on the left and it created a fair chunk of Arsenal’s chances. Though they played 27 long balls toward the final third, it wasn’t used as much as it should have been, as playing through the middle was often met by a block and sideways passing.

Villarreal is unlikely to play high up the pitch at the Emirates, especially as Aubameyang is now fit, so this is not a tactic Arsenal can really rely on.

The Ceballos underlap and some long balls towards Pepe was mostly it for Arsenal’s set plays to create scoring chances. Like playing guitar on two strings, it won’t sound very good.

Though the early Villarreal goal changed the game plan, the front four of Smith Rowe (6 passes forward), Saka (7 passes forward), Ødegaard (14) and Pepe (8) was too much playmaking and too little goal scoring threat. A playmaker playmaking a playmaker isn’t a great recipe for goal.

Arteta needs new ideas and some added fire power up front ahead of Arsenal’s season-defining game in London.

Pathways to goal (and Gdansk)

If we envisage Villarreal to play with a deeper defensive line in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, how can Arsenal attack it?

Long balls over the top are out of the question. But Arsenal could continue the midfield underlap and should add overlaps to the left side. Xhaka as leftback is too predictable and static.

The most effective way to the final third is thus via the wings, as it’s the easiest area to create a positional advantage against Villarreal’s narrow defensive setup.

But to eventually get through a low double line of four in the final third (as seen above), Arsenal need to create space for themselves from movement: break-through runs, one-twos, runs to drag opponents out of position, decoy runs, simultaneous runs between midfield and attack. This was severely lacking last week.

Smith Rowe’s nose to get into the box, Partey’s forward passing and Saka’s inventiveness could be key.

If Tierney and Lacazette can play, they really should. Tierney would add an attacking weapon on the left, of course, and Lacazette is the warrior up front that can occupy the Villarreal defenders, giving others more space.

One set play that involves lots of movement and can be used frequently against a low block is:

  • Both winger and the striker form a front three occupying both Villarreal centrebacks the their fullbacks
  • Ball is played out wide to Arsenal’s fullback, which triggers a midfielder to storm into the open half space between defence and midfield (underlap)
  • Midfielder receives the ball and plays a one-two with the players up top or pushes into the box himself

This would be the starting position:

This play keeps the Villarreal defenders tied back while Arsenal can quickly force a man advantage with the ball going towards goal.

The midfielder in question could be Partey or perhaps Ødegaard. Having playmakers like Ødegaard in deeper, central roles can work well against defensive teams while putting more goal-oriented players higher up.

This set play also puts Aubameyang, who could start as a winger, closer to goal.

So, two overlapping fullbacks, a striker that can hold up play, direct passing in the final third with more set plays and about three tablespoons of creative freedom to open play up. Hit them from all sides, Arteta.

Source:, TV2 Sport

Twitter: awoaken


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