There is a glimmer of hope amidst the sea of negativity that Arsenal have been swimming in recently. Some players are close to making their return after serious injuries. Of course, as we have seen with Wilshere recently and with others in the past, getting hopes up when it comes to injuries and Arsenal is not a smart choice. Nevertheless, when Wenger says Sagna, Arteta, Henry, and Coquelin have a chance to be involved on Sunday, it does give the tormented heart some respite.
This game didn’t have a midweek tie preceding it – and with the benefit of hindsight I feel it was just as well the Gunners didn’t reach the Carling Cup semis as those games would have really stretched the threadbare resources available to Arsene – but it does have two quick League fixtures soon after. With those in mind, I’d prefer to see the returning players eased back with caution. There is no point giving someone a start in this game only to lose him for a few weeks after that.
I’d like to see the same side that took the field against United in the second half.
Szczesny – Yennaris, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Song, Ramsey, Rosicky – Walcott, RvP, Oxlade-Chamberlain.
There are a number of other options that Wenger will have to consider but most involve returning players and it’s really hard for us to judge their fitness situation without all the facts. For instance, Coquelin could come in at right-back or even in midfield. Arteta could return to the position he’s made his own in a short period of time at the club. That would be a particularly tempting choice for Arsene as his side have missed the technique, composure and defensive contribution of the Spaniard. Wenger might even stick with the experience of Djourou ahead of Yennaris, especially as Villa are not likely to have the same level of threat up front that United posed. Park or Henry could also have a case for starting but I’d go with Van Persie. Wenger could pick Park in place of Ramsey – who really needs a breather – if he thinks the Korean can offer the kind of work rate required in that position or that Van Persie could drop deep and play, at least partly, as a midfielder. In that case the wide players will have a much bigger defensive responsibility. These are just some of the choice Arsene will have to mull over.
With N’Zogbia likely to miss the game, we could see Agbonlahor on the left and Albrighton on the right of Bent. McLeish will probably start with a defensive approach and make attacking substitutions late in the game if it’s still winnable. That would imply a wall of five players in front of their defensive line and 70 odd minutes of long balls down the channels.
Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain can really have a field day in this game but for that the Gunners have to move the ball fast enough to find them in space. The tempo of the game will be vital and the hosts have to ensure they don’t allow Villa a chance to settle. In the recent games, Arsenal’s defending has buckled under pressure but it all starts when the side fails to hold on to the ball and endures sustained spells of pressure. If Villa manage that away from home they will deserve to win and Arsenal’s season will get much worse. Somehow I doubt that will happen but with a depleted squad and the air of negativity in the stadium, you never know how things will turn out.
Villa fans, players, and the manager cannot be faulted for strongly believing they have a good chance in this game. Hopefully, that will draw them out and they will leave spaces behind their centre-halves who can be caught by pace.
The Gunners, for their part, have to find a degree of tactical cohesion that we haven’t seen consistently in the last few weeks. Arsenal have to avoid the loop where two players are seen pressing up the field, another three caught in a no man’s land around the centre-circle, with the defence dropping deep. Such situations inevitably lead to a freakish goal and Bent has a history of scoring against Arsenal. Even on set-pieces, the players can’t afford to switch off.
Arsene must also ensure his team doesn’t ease off if they score an early goal. As we saw in the Swansea game, that give the opponents a way back into the game and that sometimes forces the tactical issues discussed earlier in the post.
Most other teams would probably be happy to return from such a fixture with a draw but Villa have surprisingly done very well at the Emirates and have been quite a disaster at home against the Gunners. It’s a different side under McLeish though, and the Scot probably has a much better record at home against Arsenal than he has away. In any case, I don’t think anyone in the Arsenal camp would want to see a replay. It’s important to settle this at home. The draw does not have that many big names any more – although given the luck Arsenal have had I will be surprised if they get anything other than an away draw against Liverpool or Chelsea in the next round – so this game has to be seen a big opportunity.
I expect a tough game for Arsenal and one that won’t be settled till late in the game. The side that makes fewer individual mistakes and one that can impose it’s tactical will on the game over large periods should walk away with the result.