What went wrong for Aston Villa at Arsenal?

Aston Villa is a club in panic after a third-straight Premier League defeat at Arsenal on Friday evening.

Villa conceded twice in an astonishingly poor first half that paved the way for a 3-1 loss. Unable to complete simple passing sequences, Villa could not play the ball out from the back and looked lost in defense.

Manager Dean Smith is feeling the heat as supporters scratch their heads over his tactical decisions on Friday night. Smith stuck with three in the back to start the match but failed to adjust in the first half despite worrying signs.

Sub-par individual performances further doomed Villa who, in truth, could have been down 3-0 or 4-0 at halftime.So what wrong?

The 3-5-2 is cooked

There’s no doubt the 3-5-2 formation produced some great performances from Aston Villa this season. Against Chelsea, Everton, and Manchester United, Villa deployed a high press and looked strong at the back with three central defenders, but starting with the Wolves match last week Smith tweaked the formation.

Emi Buendia took the place of Jacob Ramsey in the midfield, and the team lined up in more of a 3-4-1-2 than a 3-5-2. The result: Villa’s been outnumbered in the midfield and weak on the press.

Since Smith’s appointment, Villa have played almost exclusively with three central midfielders to play a progressive brand of football. The move to three in the back was inherently defensive, but with three central midfielders, Villa could still progress the ball effectively and deploy a high press.

Arsenal’s Brazilian striker Gabriel Martinelli (L) vies with Aston Villa’s Scottish midfielder John McGinn during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium in London on October 22, 2021. – – RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)

Buendia is a right winger or, at best, a number 10. He’s not an all-purpose central midfielder. Ramsey brought a more complete effort to the middle of the park and should never have lost his place. If Smith insists on sticking with a three-man backline moving forward, he must pair it with a three-man midfield group.

The 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 also keeps natural wingers out of the XI. Leon Bailey has just returned to fitness, and Bertrand Traore remains out, but the current formation won’t accommodate either and hasn’t gotten the best out of Buendia or Anwar El Ghazi.

It’s been too long since we’ve seen shifty wingers pressuring opposition backlines for Villa, and the strike partnership of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings has hardly made up for the lack of potency going forward.

At Arsenal, Villa moved to a 4-3-3 in the second half, and according to @pgr_analytics on Twitter, generated 10 shots and an expected goals (xG) figure of 1.36. In the first half, while employing the 3-5-2, Villa had zero shots and 0.00 xG.

Poor individual performances

Villa were let down by Smith’s chosen system at Arsenal, but poor individual performances up and down the lineup contributed to a disappointing afternoon.

Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett, Buendia, Ings, and Watkins struggled and were incapable of covering for tactical shortcomings. Mings and Targett, specifically, were dreadful in and out of possession, and the three forward players struggled to complete simple passes.

Until the Wolves match, Mings and Targett were in good form, providing support at the back and distribution from deep and wide areas. They since look rattled, afraid to make mistakes, and incapable of completing simple defensive assignments.

Buendia, Ings, and Watkins have struggled throughout the campaign. The Ings-Watkins strike force has yet to gel, and Buendia has played out of position in virtually all matches.

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 22: Axel Tuanzebe and Tyrone Mings help up Emiliano Martinez of Aston Villa after they concede their second goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on October 22, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Smith should consider that poor form for Targett, Buendia, Ings, and Watkins could be rectified with a switch to a 4-3-3 formation.

A lack of direction and leadership

We all love Mings, McGinn, and Smith. The trio makes up the leadership backbone of this squad. But it feels like the sky is falling right now, and none of them have an answer.

Mings and McGinn, captain and vice-captain of the club, could be seen on Friday arguing on the pitch. There have been rumors of arguments in the dressing room and players unhappy with Smith. A lot is going on behind the scenes, and for the club to move forward it must be sorted.

Smith has gotten Villa out of worse predicaments, but it feels like the pressure of fighting for the European places has him overthinking personnel and tactical decisions. We need him to be direct with the players and establish a system favored by his top performers.

As for Mings and McGinn: they have to settle the lads on the pitch. There’s a lot of new pieces, and some may not know how they fit in. Others may not know how to adjust to life with new faces around. It’s up to the pair to provide strength, confidence, and levelheadedness for a floundering squad.