Talking Tactics

How Rice can help Arsenal halt Aston Villa juggernaut

6 Dec 2023
Leon Bailey-Declan Rice

Adrian Clarke says Gunners must adopt forceful approach to end Villa's 14-match home winning run

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Aston Villa

Facing Aston Villa away from home is the toughest assignment in the Premier League right now, with Unai Emery’s side claiming 14 successive wins at Villa Park in the competition.

They delivered a near-perfect performance to beat Manchester City 1-0 in midweek, outshooting the champions 22-2 in a display that confirmed their top-four potential.

Next up at Villa Park are leaders Arsenal, who were the last opponents to beat them on their own patch back in February, winning 4-2.

From a tactical perspective, it will be fascinating to see how Mikel Arteta approaches the game. Reacting to their success, will he show pragmatism like he did when beating Man City at home earlier on this season?

Or will the Arsenal manager back his team to prevail in this fixture with their usual tactics?

Matching Villa’s intensity

Villa’s forceful approach allowed them to win their individual battles against a Man City side who could find no flow.

Unai Emery's team won 58.4 per cent of their duels on Wednesday, regaining possession 13 times inside the final third.

This aggressive style, with Douglas Luiz and John McGinn regularly jumping out to press in advanced areas, gave them a platform to go on and dominate. The graphic below shows how many times Douglas Luiz (No 6) and McGinn (No 7) regained possession in City's half through recoveries, tackles won or interceptions.  


Last season, Arsenal were in a similar position at Villa Park when trailing 2-1 at half-time, but they turned it around with a far more physically imposing and confident second half.

Playing with greater assertiveness and moving the ball at a better tempo, Arsenal passed around the hosts at will to outshoot them 18-3 in a half in which they scored three times.

To play through Villa’s press, and subsequently expose Emery’s high line, a player's speed of thought in possession must be incredibly bright.

As shown in this still (below) Villa's desire to congest the middle third forces opponents to play in an area that is often less than 30 yards long. This can be challenging.

Villa congest the midfield v Man City
Aston Villa congestion
Responsibility on Rice

To handle this excellent Aston Villa side, who use four central midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 formation, you must be strong inside the heart of the midfield.

Even when Villa use a lopsided 4-5-1 (as they did on Wednesday with Leon Bailey on the right as the graphic shows below), their quartet of Boubacar Kamara, Douglas Luiz, McGinn and Youri Tielemans are always looking to create overloads down the middle.


This will test Arsenal’s shape and place extra responsibility on Declan Rice’s shoulders.

Since joining from West Ham United, Rice has delivered consistently influential performances.

Regaining possession with ease, making 23 interceptions along the way (11 more than any team-mate) Rice has offered his new side an extra layer of protection, as well as great quality on the ball.

Most Arsenal interceptions 23/24
Player Total
Declan Rice 23
Gabriel 12
Ben White 10
Takehiro Tomiyasu 9
Oleksandr Zinchenko 9
William Saliba 9

Rice, who has scored one and assisted twice in his last couple of outings at Villa Park, will be expected to break up play whenever McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Tielemans pop up in those dangerous infield spaces.

Arteta's midfield dilemma

Rice and captain Martin Odegaard will start, but it will be interesting to see if Arteta selects one of Kai Havertz and Leandro Trossard in an attacking move, or if he turns to the more defensive Jorginho.

The Italian’s lack of mobility could be an issue in what should be a fast-paced match, but his defensive nous and control in possession will undoubtedly be an asset.

If Jorginho plays, it would also push Rice to a left-of-centre midfield position, and this might sway Arteta’s decision.

With right winger Bailey is in such excellent form – and Oleksandr Zinchenko inverting into midfield - Arsenal may need Rice to be in situ to protect the left side.

In last season’s 4-2 success, Jorginho, providing two key passes, and Odegaard, seven key passes, were both outstanding, splitting the Villa defence open with a steady stream of incisive balls.

It was memorably Jorginho’s stunning stoppage-time shot that earned the win for Arsenal.

Look out for width and runners from deep

While packing central areas with a clutch of midfielders is one of Villa’s core strengths under Emery, they can sometimes be caught light on numbers out wide.

Many of Arsenal’s attacks are funnelled down the flanks through Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, so look out for quick switches of play to those two wingers.

If they transfer passes swiftly enough, those two stars will enjoy plenty of 1v1s or 2v1s down the sides.

Gabriel Jesus’ movement will also provide headaches for Aston Villa’s four-man defence.

Unlike Erling Haaland, who toiled down the middle on Wednesday, Jesus will move around to create space for others.

A good example was how Havertz ran into the empty centre-forward space to score against Luton Town (above) and this will be a ploy Arsenal aim to repeat.

Havertz v Luton

If Jesus can drag a Villa central defender away from their position, Arsenal will try and profit from the space that is vacated.

Beating a high line is not easy, but sharp one-twos, accurate long balls, and runners from deep can unlock the door.

Look out for Arsenal trying to make these things happen in what is a mouthwatering encounter.

Arsenal will need to be physically brave and offer a threat of their own if they are to put a stop to Villa's 14-match winning run at home.

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