Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Aston Villa preview: find the defensive balance to spark the attack

The requirement today, obviously, is three Premier League points and a showing much more like the one against Man City than Dortmund.

I suspect it might need some tinkering with the team, but the man over whom the largest question marks remain got the full backing of the manager yesterday. Mesut Ozil’s form has been in the spotlight over the last week or two and it came into sharp focus after a limp display in Dortmund (although he was hardly alone in that).

Speaking at his press conference yesterday, the manager came out swinging in defence of the German, warning against scapegoating him, and urged some patience:

Why should he be a scapegoat? For what? We lost one game since the beginning of April. We all go through periods where we are less good. We are a union, players, supporters and directors. Fans need to be patient.

He then said that if he had to do it all over again, he would, and denied that it’s where Ozil is being played that’s the issue:

I would pay the money again. Of course. Zidane went to Real Madrid for £82m and he played on the left. There was never a debate and he had to play there. Because in the middle they had Raul and Ronaldo he made room and played on the left. When you have the ball you play where you want and go where you want.

My feeling, and I’ve said this before, is that it’s an issue of form and confidence. I think a fully fit, fully confident, in-form Ozil could certainly play from the left – remembering he’s got the freedom to go where he wants with the ball – very effectively. It’s whether or not that’s the best place for him when he’s struggling and if that’s having an impact on him regaining his form.

I think it’s worth remembering that this is an Arsenal team that hasn’t really played well this season and for me that’s a much bigger issue than the trials of one individual. Yes, he cost £42.5m and there’s an expectation that comes with that, but surely it’s much more important to sort out our collective problems rather than get the knives out for one man.

My feeling is that we need to go back to basics a bit. The manager spoke yesterday about the team’s system/tactics, and said:

We have to find a balance between attacking and defending.

Right now it’s clear that balance is not right at either end. Not only have we failed to click as an attacking force, we look defensively more suspect than we did for the majority of last season.

Yes, we had those big defeats away but it wasn’t for no reason that people were quick to laud the partnership between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, while Wojciech Szczesny was the joint winner of the Golden Glove for the most clean sheets in the Premier League.

So, maybe to find the way forward, we need to look back at what we did in the late part of 2012. After being torn apart at White Hate Lane – the latest in a number of games in which we looked defensively abject – we changed tack.

Always an attacking side under Wenger, we resorted to a ‘First, we don’t lose’ approach, and it paid dividends. We ground out enough victories to secure a top four place at the expense of Sp*rs, and much of what made it effective was the midfield balance provided by Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey.

The whole team was more switched on defensively, but Ramsey complemented Arteta’s calm, assured distribution perfectly. He was the non-stop running, tackling, pressing machine and when the 2013-14 season began, Arsenal, based on their new-found defensive platform, were a better outfit from an attacking point of view also.

Now, after the goalscoring strides he took in the 2013-14, Ramsey is playing much further forward, thus leaving Arteta, or Flamini, more exposed. If Ramsey were to drop a little deeper and play from there, he would offer more protection to the holding midfielder.

We can complain all we want about the lack of signing a defensive midfielder, but there’s nothing we can do about it until January at the earliest. Wenger has to find a solution with the players he’s got, and I think the blueprint is right in front of him.

While you don’t want to negate Ramsey’s attacking instincts, or indeed his quality in the final third, it’s not as you’re saying he can’t cross the halfway line, just be a little more conservative in his position. At the other end, Danny Welbeck, Alexis, Lukas Podolski, Mesut Ozil and, of course, the returning Theo Walcott can take up the slack and are all capable of the goals and creativity Ramsey brings.

The back four need the protection to give Arsenal the confidence to function as an attacking force. Ensuring Arteta or Flamini aren’t exposed as the full backs push on (and we know they’ll push on), will help provide that, and Aaron Ramsey is the man best suited to that job right now in my opinion.

As for today, it’d be just like the manager to back Ozil to the hilt and then ‘rest’ him, but despite Villa’s impressive start to the season, I’d like to think we can respond. Find a bit more of what we did last Saturday and not so much of what we did (or didn’t do), on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, the financials have been released. It’s all very healthy as you’d imagine, and in fairness there has been considerable (if not complete) investment in the team this summer. We spent more money than we have in … well … ever, but as you look at the figures it’s just impossible for the club to justify the decision to raise season ticket prices by 3%.

I’m not a season ticket holder, so there are others who will write on this from a much better position, but I have friends who are and who feel the pinch every time they have to fork out more. It always seemed a stretch that with new commercial and TV revenue streams – and very large ones at that – that a price rise was acceptable in any way. These figures demonstrate it’s just not.

Right then, that’s about that. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to yesterday’s Arsecast, then you’ll find it right here. And if you can’t see the match later, or if you’d just like to follow it with us as you watch, we’ve got full live blog coverage for you this afternoon.

Check back later on to find a post with all the team news and the details, or you can just bookmark our default live blog page and updates will begin automatically.

Until then.

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