By Naveen Maliakkal
Watch Villa’s Midfield Runners
Aston Villa come into the FA Cup Final as clear underdogs. When playing against Arsenal, some teams have opted to sit deep, stay compact, and force Arsenal into crossing the ball from relatively static wide positions. Aston Villa could adopt this style of play; however, such a style of play seems unlikely given their manager.
Tim Sherwood has opted for a more proactive approach to Aston Villa’s out-of-possession play. While Christian Benteke is not asked to aggressively press the opponent’s back line, the men behind him press high. Villa look to force the ball wide, and then double-team the man on the ball, using the sideline as an extra defender. With the rest of the Villa pressers looking to deny passes into the center of the pitch, the two men closing down the ball will look to create a mistake or win the ball, setting Villa off on the counter. If their initial high press is unsuccessful, Villa will look to drop into a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 shape.
Sometimes, Sherwood has opted for a diamond in midfield, so to avoid having an opponent easily control the center of pitch. Though he does have a reputation for using a flat 4-4-2, and while its use led to a 4-0 victory over Sunderland, losses to Swansea and Manchester United, where both sides dominated the center of the pitch, have made that approach a “break in case of emergency” one.
When Villa have the ball, they want to move it to their attacking front as quickly as possible. Attacks can be supported by up to six players, with fullbacks joining and looking to play crosses for Christian Benteke to win. Villa will create overloads in wide areas, particularly in the half-spaces, with the goal of using that superiority out wide, in the final third, to more successfully move the ball into a central area.
Aston Villa have a left-sided bias to their attacks. With Jack Grealish probably having a free role and Agbonlahor looking to stay on the right or in central areas, there is space for Fabian Delph to advance.
While Aston Villa like to initiate attacks from wide areas, they do not play with the width one would associate with an stereotypically English side. This is particularly true when Tom Cleverly and Fabian Delph play on the outside of the midfield diamond or operate as the two advanced midfielders in a 4-3-3. Both look to make runs in the half-spaces rather than pulling into the widest sixths of the pitch.
Although their equalizer against Liverpool in the FA Cup Semi-final, a strange match¹, came from their own throw-in, one can see the importance of these midfield runs and Villa’s desire for a compact attack, allowing more players to interact with one another.
The attack starts with Delph beating his man and playing the ball beyond the immediate defensive line into Grealish, who has plenty of space to dribble. Delph’s first instinct is to continue his run, not to overlap Grealish, who customarily cuts infield from such a position, but with an underlapping run.
This makes Delph a forward option for Grealish, as an overlapping run would, but with the added benefit of receiving the ball in a much more dangerous position.
Delph does receive the ball and due to his positioning in the half-space, as opposed to out wide, the cutback to Benteke becomes a viable option, from which Villa equalize.
On the other side, notice how Cleverley does not fade away from the ball. Instead, he looks to stay just to the outside of his defender, so to stay as close to the play as possible. He’s still an option for a chipped ball, but also places himself in a better position to convert a rebound off of the Benteke shot. The narrowness of his run allows him to have a greater effect on the passage of play.
Even their fullbacks will sometimes make runs closer to the center of the pitch when supporting attacks. One can observe this by looking at a chance Villa fashioned off a Liverpool turnover.
Moreno turns the ball over and Jack Grealish plays a give-and-go with Benteke, but does not maintain possession due to a tackle by Alberto Moreno.
However, Kieran Richardson (bottom of the screen), Aston Villa’s left-back on the day, has made a run left of center of the pitch.
By not looking to pull wide, Richardson finds himself with a chance to take a shot from the danger area. While he does make a mess of it, the fact that he had the opportunity came down to not trying to add unnecessary width in attack.
Three Counter-Pressing Options for Arsenal
With Aston Villa’s ability to cause damage on the counter-attack, Benteke’s aerial prowess, and Arsenal’s inability to cope with players who can dominate in the air, the goal for Arsenal should be to avoid situations that play into Aston Villa’s strengths. Instead of trying to figure out a better way to defend in their own box, or try to directly mitigate the aerial threat of Benteke, Arsenal need to keep this game in Villa’s half of the pitch.
Arsenal could try to take a proactive approach to defending counters, rather than looking to get into a track meet with Aston Villa, and any counter-pressing strategy starts with considering how a team will play in possession.
Out of possession, ideally, a team has a compact shape with the ability to control the space the ball occupies (access to the ball) allowing them to win it back. The latter often involves having a numerical superiority around the ball, allowing the team out of possession to win the ball back, more successfully pick up a loose ball, or intercept a pass.Therefore, if one wishes to have success counter-pressing, these conditions must be established in possession.
This means that Arsenal should not look to play an overly expansive game. Excessive width in possession, by spreading out all of one’s players, means the team is too spread out once the ball is lost. This makes it too difficult to get into a compact shape to control valuable areas of the pitch immediately and makes it too difficult for the side that just lost possession to create a numerical superiority around the ball. Thus, Arsenal’s first consideration must be to not get dragged into playing a wide game: a team that plays with excessive width cannot effectively counter-press.
Out of possession, if Arsenal focus on counter-pressing to control Aston Villa’s attacking transitions, they will probably adopt a style that looks to put the man on the ball under pressure.
My first preference would be for Arsenal to play a Guardiola-style “baiting” press. This press involves limiting the ball-player’s options down to a seemingly safe pass, only to intercept it. Deploying this press would be ideal because Villa want to play the ball forward and move players up the pitch. An approach focusing on interceptions allows for Villa to get out of position and for quicker movement of the ball from the moment possession changes. However, this strategy is the most complex and Arsenal haven’t shown that they can perform this version of the counter-press consistently.
Instead, Arsenal could look to swarm the man on the ball, with their sole focus being the man on the ball. Against players with little ability on the ball and little intelligence, such an approach could prove effective. However, by focusing so heavily on the ball, and not limiting the man-on-the-ball’s options, a simple pass could bypass the entire press, setting the opponent off to the races, with Arsenal scrambling to recover.
Arsenal could also take an approach that limits the ball-player’s options, so to funnel the play into an area where they can better exert a numerical superiority. Obviously, the ability to limit a player’s options and force them into a space they do not wish to go requires having superior resources and resource allocation where possession was lost. This can involve pushing the play into a wide area, where the ball-player has only 180 degrees of space to move the ball into, rather than 360 degrees. With the sideline functioning as another defender, such an approach would often involve pushing the play all the way to the sideline, while simultaneously trying to win the ball.
Another possible approach involves less of an emphasis on winning the ball from the man in possession, but winning it back once it moves to another player. Instead of heavily pressuring the ball, only one, maybe two, players go to pressure the player in possession. They might win the ball, but even if a pass is made, the rest of the players have transiently man-marked the available passing options. This allows Arsenal to pounce on the pass, challenge the reception, or make a tackle after a player has received the ball. It has the benefit of limiting the downside of the player in possession breaking a wave of pressure, as fewer resources are committed to immediately winning the ball. However, it does require players to quickly identify players to mark, not to leave a man unmarked, and win the individual battle should it occur.
Keep Aston Villa in Their Half: High Pressing
When it comes to high pressing, two Arsenal performances stand above the rest. The first came against Manchester United in the FA Cup. In that match, Arsenal looked to reduce Daley Blind’s effectiveness and exploit the lack of technical ability and possession-game intelligence of United’s back line, to disrupt their opponent’s build-up play. This involved plenty of man-orientation, with Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck doing well to put pressure on the ball, while keeping the player who they left to apply that pressure, unavailable to the man on the ball. If Arsenal opt for such an approach, it may pair well with the final counter-pressing approach described. However, such emphasis on man-marking does put Arsenal at risk of a lost individual match-up ruining their attempted press, and it puts them at the risk of fatiguing too quickly, as such a man-oriented approach requires a high level of energy and intensity.
The second standout performance came in the first half of their 4-1 victory over Liverpool. This match involved the most sophisticated pressing approach that Arsenal have showcased. Unlike the match against Manchester United, which relied much more on individualism, the effort against Liverpool saw Arsenal work as a cohesive unit, from front to back, denying Liverpool passing options, while simultaneously working to control the space in which the ball resided, so to win it back. Not only did this involve intelligence in positioning, but it involved the team shape rotating and orienting itself to the position of the ball and the Liverpool players, so to maintain numerical superiority in local areas around the ball. With all the teasing Arsenal have done to their fans by showing only glimpses of their potential, the first half against Liverpool served as the clear apotheosis of that.
However, when Liverpool shifted to a back four in the second half, with a central midfield trio, allowing them to better support the man on the ball, particularly in half-spaces, Arsenal’s pressing strategy broke down. Instead of adapting their pressing style, they opted to defend in their own half. So while the principles behind Arsenal’s first-half pressing represented exactly what one wishes to see in a high pressing side, their ability to apply it to against a 4-1-4-1 type formation or to adapt it to changes in the opposition’s positional play may not be sufficient to expect such excellence in the FA Cup Final.
Arsenal in Possession
While the virtues of compact possession, with respect to counter-pressing, were explained above, it has benefits in possession as well. A team with too expansive a shape in possession has difficulty supporting the man with the ball. Players have to fend for themselves more often. By staying compact in possession, a team can more easily create numerical superiorities in areas around the ball. Players can also more easily interact with one another, allowing them to work together to better support each other.
Such compactness, leading to greater support and greater local superiorities, has the potential for greater control of the space immediately around the ball. From this, Arsenal can force Aston Villa to bend their shape, so to eliminate the superiority Arsenal have around the ball. In doing so, Aston Villa will have to divest from other areas of the pitch, and that is what Arsenal should punish; they need to move the ball into the area from which Aston Villa have divested.
For example, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, and Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have the potential to overload the left-side of the pitch, in the widest sixth or in the half-space, forcing Villa to shift their shape to that side. This could leave the likes of Aaron Ramsey/Theo Walcott or a forward-charging Hector Bellerin plenty of space, and Arsenal only have to get the ball to them in a timely fashion to exploit that opening. The compactness of the attacking shape allows the ball to quickly move from the cluster of Arsenal players on the left to another area where Aston Villa have less access to the ball, such as a space occupied by a deep-lying midfielder supporting Arsenal’s possession.
In this sense, Francis Coquelin could prove detrimental to Arsenal. While Arsenal have created that numerical superiority, the ball needs to move into an area that Aston Villa do not have proper access to the ball. Without this access to the ball, the player who receives it can quickly switch the play to the weak-side space that Arsenal have worked to create for the player on the right. This is why, for example, a player like Xabi Alonso has such value. Not only does he have the intelligence to understand when and how to support the attack with his positioning, but his switches of play are hit so flat, with such speed, and with such precision that the opposition cannot react quickly enough to prevent the ball from moving into this dangerous free space. With Francis Coquelin, there exists a real risk that he will fail to support Arsenal’s attacks, when the team plays in the final third, let alone the unlikely possibility that he pulls off a successful switch of play into a dangerous area.
For this reason, Aaron Ramsey could find himself starting on the right, acting as a situational central midfielder. This would allow him to come infield when Arsenal do overload the left side, giving Arsenal a much better chance to move the ball into an area of decreased ball access for Aston Villa, with a greater potential of making a potent pass.
This approach does have problems, as Aaron Ramsey leaving the right side, removes a potential option from that side. Instead, Hector Bellerin may have to bomb forward from his right-back position, and Olivier Giroud would probably stay central instead of helping to overload the left, which could decrease Arsenal’s ability to control the space needed to set up the switch of play, as he must occupy the attention of the left-back, making the left-back unaware of the dangerous run coming from deep and behind him.
For all the value Coquelin has brought to Arsenal, with respect to how they play out of possession, his lack of ability to provide value when Arsenal have possession could prove problematic. As has been previous written on this site, he becomes a liability when teams look to stifle Arsenal’s build-up play, something which Aston Villa will likely attempt. In the final third, having him in the sides limits Arsenal’s ability to control a space, draw the opponent into that space, and then switch the play away from that space to create a high-quality chance on goal.
That is not to say that this current version of Arsenal is better without him; however, he is a static specialist². But even as a static specialist I still think he has to start for Arsenal: unless Roger Schmidt is managing arsenal, they aren’t going to pull off the super narrow 4222 with the nuts amount of pressing required to have Caz and Ramsey as the two deepest mids.
Thus, it could be that this FA Cup Final comes down to how Arsenal exploit Coquelin’s production when they do not have the ball, while figuring out creative solutions to make up for his significant limitations when they do have the ball.
¹Liverpool’s lack of cohesion and energy, along with Villa’s five midfielders, allowed Villa to actual dominate periods of the game in possession.
²On the pitch, everyone specializes. However, a static specialist is one who cannot adapt their specialization to the circumstances of time, space, players, and the ball to best provide value to his team at that moment. Ideally, teams have more players who are capable of dynamic specialization and have the intelligence to know when to adapt their role