3 things that went wrong for Arsenal in Aston Villa defeat

  • Arsenal succumbed to an impressive Aston Villa on Sunday
  • Villa confident against fading Gunners press
  • Mikel Arteta's coaching performance drew questions
It was an afternoon to forget for the Gunners
It was an afternoon to forget for the Gunners / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Arsenal had the incentive of casting a horse aside in this thrilling Premier League title race when Aston Villa rocked up at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon.

A weary Liverpool had just succumbed at home to Crystal Palace, and although Manchester City had won the day prior, victory at the Emirates would've returned Mikel Arteta's side to the top of the table while opening up a three-point gap over Jurgen Klopp's Reds.

And while there was early promise, Arsenal's afternoon eventually evolved into a bit of a nightmare. Ruling the Gunners out of the race after their first Premier League defeat of 2024 would certainly be hyperbolic, but there's no escaping just how deflating Sunday's loss was ahead of a trip to the Allianz Arena.

Here's where it went wrong for Arsenal in their 2-0 defeat to Unai Emery's Aston Villa.

1. Profligate first-half

Emiliano Martinez, Leandro Trossard
Leandro Trossard missed a gilt-edge chance before half-time / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

Arsenal's downturn post-Christmas was almost solely down to inefficient final-third performances. However, after returning from the mid-season winter break, the Gunners had outperformed their expected goals (xG) tally in nine of their 11 Premier League fixtures before Sunday.

Perhaps a lack of Gabriel Jesus aided Arsenal's improvement in front of goal, but it'd be incredibly harsh to pinpoint the hosts' woes on the Brazilian's shoulders against Villa.

Jesus did head an early effort into the side netting before having a decent effort saved by Emi Martinez after half-time, but the most egregious miss came from the typically proficient right boot of Leandro Trossard. The Belgian was denied superbly by Martinez from close range, and this chance made up a big chunk of Arsenal's 1.73 first-half xG (0.72).

I don't need to lecture you on the importance of game state. We all know that had Arsenal taken one of their several chances in the opening 45 minutes, the second half would've undoubtedly played out differently.

While Arteta's suggestion that the hosts "should've scored three, four, five goals in the first half" was a bit of an exaggeration, there's no overlooking Arsenal's early profligacy as a key factor in Sunday's result.

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2. Aston Villa break through fading press

Leon Bailey, John McGinn, Youri Tielemans
The visitors celebrate Leon Bailey's opener / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

Arsenal's work without the ball has been lauded time and time again over the past 18 months, with some, including analyst Jon Mackenzie, labelling Arteta's unit as the 'best out of possession team in the world'.

The Gunners so often suffocate opponents into submission with their 4-4-2 man-oriented press, and no team in the Premier League has forced more turnovers leading to shots this season (61).

Arsenal's intensity without the ball works in harmony with their majesty in possession, facilitating total control, but Emery's Villans found ways of mitigating the Gunners' pressure.

Villa, blessed with technicians in defence and a confident goalkeeper, were ever so brave. They constantly baited Arsenal's leading pressers, waiting for the optimal time to progress forward. Youri Tielemans operated as an infallible bounce player in the pivot, while Morgan Rogers, Ollie Watkins, and Nicolo Zaniolo all used their physicality and nous to help their side get up the pitch.

As Jamie Carragher pointed out in his analysis on Monday Night Football, Jorginho's absence seemed to have played a major role structurally when Arsenal sought to win possession high, with Declan Rice less sure of his position. Oleksandr Zinchenko, when he drifted inside, failed to provide the requisite security.

These issues were only exacerbated as the contest wore on as Arsenal faded physically, allowing their excellent visitors even more time and space to build up and assert control,

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3. Mikel Arteta too late to react

Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta's coaching performance come under scrutiny / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

I didn't have too much of an issue with Arteta's starting XI. Considering that this fixture arrived in between the two Bayern legs, rotation was to be expected.

Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard both helped turned the tide on Tuesday night; they both got starts. Fair enough. Oleksandr Zinchenko's inclusion raised a few eyebrows, as did Kai Havertz's role given his success up top, but the latter played a key role in exposing Villa's high defensive line from his deeper position in the first half.

The idea was fine, and Arsenal, as I noted, should've walked into the dressing room at half-time in front. The Gunners worked well as a collective, but Jesus struggled, and Trossard was a non-entity after missing his gilt-edge chance.

The need for change as Villa took second-half control was obvious, but Arteta's changes failed to inspire. There were like-for-like subs after 67 minutes, but the necessary switch - to move Havertz up front for Jesus - wasn't made until the 79th minute, while Zinchenko, who lost the plot after half-time, lasted 87 minutes.

With Martin Odegaard withdrawing due to an apparent fitness concern, Arsenal simply couldn't muster any momentum in the latter stages of the contest. Jorginho's introduction for Jesus suggested Arteta merely wanted to restore some control, but Villa weren't in the business of surrendering it.