Talking Tactics

How can Aston Villa win at Arsenal without Douglas Luiz?

By Adrian Clarke 12 Apr 2024
Douglas Luiz Aston Villa

Adrian Clarke on why John McGinn will need to fulfil a different role on Sunday in absence of suspended Brazilian

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be influential in Matchweek 33.

Team analysis - Aston Villa

In the absence of the suspended Douglas Luiz, there will be a reliance on John McGinn to hold Aston Villa’s patched-up midfield together at Emirates Stadium this Sunday.

The experienced Scot has spent most of 2023/24 operating as a narrow winger or No 10, but Unai Emery will almost certainly need McGinn to perform more of a central role at Arsenal.

Villa will be without their talismanic Brazilian Douglas Luiz, as well as fellow first-choice central midfielder Boubacar Kamara, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

That classy duo laid the platform for a stunning start to the season which could still see the club achieve an unexpected top-four finish.

To be competitive in north London, 29-year-old McGinn - a fixture in their midfield for five consecutive top-flight campaigns - must draw on all his nous to ensure they are not outclassed down the spine of the pitch.

Always a central figure

McGinn has developed into a very strong all-round midfielder for Villa.

Tactically intelligent, aggressive, physically strong in his duels and able to influence matches through creativity inside the final third, the Scotland international will be a vital presence on Sunday.

Wherever he is deployed, McGinn tends to be drawn towards central areas, as this pass zone map below for this season highlights. 

John McGinn passing zones

So, if he is asked to play as a defensive midfielder or in a box-to-box role at Emirates Stadium, the positions he occupies will certainly not be alien to him.

One or both of Youri Tielemans and Nicolo Zaniolo could start alongside him in central midfield, as they are the only other senior midfielders fit and available to play.

 What are Villa missing?

As a partnership, Kamara and Douglas Luiz blend outstanding defensive work with classy contributions on the ball.

Integral to Emery’s style of play, which so often focuses on holding a high line and crowding the middle third, their complementary styles add great value.

Douglas Luiz has won more tackles, with 36, and ball recoveries (169) than any other Villa player, and has also contributed significantly at the other end of the pitch, with nine goals and five assists.

Kamara is also an excellent ball-winner who often drops back into his own defensive third to break-up play when they are put under pressure.

Possession won in defensive third Possession won in middle third
Pau Torres 3.08 John McGinn 2.48
Boubacar Kamara 2.60 Boubacar Kamara 2.44
Douglas Luiz 2.57 Douglas Luiz 2.40

Arguably, Villa’s two best performances of the season so far have been a 1-0 win at home to Manchester City and a 2-1 success at Tottenham Hotspur.

On both occasions, Douglas Luiz (No 6) was a prominent figure when jumping out to produce turnovers inside the opposition half, with Kamara (44) superb as the defensive pivot.

Douglas Luiz & Kamara turnovers won v Man City (H)
Aston Villa turnovers v Man City (H)
Douglas Luiz & Kamara turnovers won v Spurs (A)
Aston Villa turnovers v Spurs (A)

There will be a responsibility for McGinn and Tielemans to replicate the high standards set in those eye-catching victories.

In fairness to McGinn, he does not shirk his defensive duties. No one in Emery’s squad wins more duels per 90 minutes.

Player Duels won/90
McGinn 5.75
Kamara 5.70
Tielemans 5.27
Fine chemistry

McGinn has created 10 big chances this season, and six of them have set up opportunities for leading scorer Ollie Watkins.

From wide areas, the Scot is adept at curling pinpoint crosses towards the front man, while centrally he is always looking to slip him in with clever through-balls.

Arsenal must get tight to the former Hibernian man, as his one-touch passes in beyond the last man have been outstanding in 2023/24.

These sharp left-footed through-balls (see below) from McGinn to Watkins, against Man City and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively, were both exquisite.


Keeping clean sheets in six of their last eight Premier League matches, Arsenal are a tough nut to crack, but the McGinn-Watkins connection is something Mikel Arteta will be wary of on Sunday.

An underrated creator

Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby are the only Villa stars to have created more chances from open play at a faster rate than McGinn, who is always looking to prise open rival defences.

This shot assists map for 2023/24 below shows how the popular midfielder can hurt rival teams from different areas.

He has made a joint team-high 14 through-balls, and several of the chances he creates also come from wide areas.

John McGinn
Big responsibility

As outlined, McGinn has a hugely important part to play on Emery’s return to north London.

Compensating for Douglas Luiz’s absence, he will need to press hard, protect Villa’s back four, step in as a set-piece taker and offer a goal and assist threat inside the final third.

He has always been a valued player, but this weekend Villa will really need him to be at his best.

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