Recently, many of us have read and talked a lot about this season producing Arsenal’s worst start to a Premier League campaign. But when I read that this was Aston Villa’s worst start to a League season since 1964/65, it put things in a whole new perspective. Of course, such historical comparisons rarely paint the complete picture. Even though the Villans have only 9 points from 12 games and despite only two teams conceding more goals than them, I find there’s more to admire about their side than to criticize.
At the very core, there seems to be this shift – much needed, dare I say – in policy with young players being given a lot more chances. If clubs at Villa’s income levels have to have realistic chances of competing against the bigger earners, they absolutely must have a very strong youth system. Over the years I’ve felt – although I’ve only seen from distance and neither as constantly, nor with anywhere near the same degree of involvement as I have with the Arsenal games – Aston Villa could have gotten more value for the money they’ve invested if they had the right managers in charge.
Finally, in Lambert, Aston Villa seem to have a man with the right vision and approach towards the game, which could, given time, translate into success on the pitch. It’s a process though, unless you can afford to make numerous £20 Million plus mistakes in the market without flinching, building a squad, and therefore a club’s future, takes a fair amount of time.
So the Gunners are going to come up against a fairly young and relatively inexperienced (at the Premier League level) Aston Villa squad. I believe in games against such sides it’s prudent to expect the unexpected. On a given day, these players might forget their position in the table or the stakes at the end of the season, and go out with a fearless heart to express their talents in a manner that catches the more seasoned opponents off-guard. It almost happened to United.
In contrast, there’s also the risk that inexperienced players will make some of those seemingly minor errors in judgment or execution that can cost the team vital goals and points. Unfortunately, and despite any manager’s best efforts, this happens more often than the triumph of youthful exuberance. Anyone who’s watched Arsenal over the last few seasons will have no problems understanding this, and by extension Aston Villa’s current predicament.
That said, it would be foolhardy for the Gunners to rely on mistakes from their opponents. They’ve to go out there and establish their right to play in the manner that suits them. For that, a midfield battle has to be won. It might not be as hard as it was against some of the other teams. Bannan and Co. don’t have the combination of physical presence, endurance, and pace that makes it possible for teams to close the Gunners down in order to negate a high tempo. If Arsenal move the ball as well as they did against Montpellier, particularly after the opening 20 odd minutes, they should take charge of the central third of the pitch.
After that it’s about breaking down a well-organized and determined opponent while covering the open spaces at the back against the threat of counter-attacks.
Christian Benteke can be a big player for Villa as he has shown the ability to run with the ball, pull out wide or – in general – to make space for himself in order to be an outlet for his team when they’ve been pushed back, and hold up play to allow others to join in the attack. In support, Villa have players who provide pace and intelligent movement in the attacking areas, particularly when they have space to run into.
At times, and not just in this season, I’ve felt that the Arsenal defenders aren’t quite sure with their decision making when faced with a mobile striker. For instance, in the build-up to the Adebayor goal, Mertesacker went with Defore and got turned with ease. Minutes later he stayed back and Defoe was able to receive the ball between the lines while facing the Arsenal goal. This led to Lennon’s shot which went wide. This indecision isn’t just limited to Mertesacker, every single central defender who’s played for Arsenal over the last few seasons has occasionally been unsure of the best course of action at certain vital moments that shaped the opponents attacks.
This battle between Benteke and the visiting central defenders should mould the key patterns of play from Arsenal’s defensive point of view.
In this game, Aston Villa’s threat on the counter will be greater than that posed by Montpellier and the Gunners cannot afford to allow them to get into the kind of promising positions that the French side managed early on in that Champions League tie. In short, Arsenal must not be sloppy on the ball or static off it. Wenger’s team should be patient but not ponderous, calculating but not complacent, and decisive when it matters not dawdling.
At the other end, I’m confident Arsenal will get chances to score as long as they can move the ball at pace. They absolutely have to push Villa back into their defensive third, after which spaces will open up in the wider areas and also in front of the back four as the hosts’ midfield isn’t exactly a paragon of defence. Giroud, in particular, can again be decisive.
Ideally, this should also be the kind of game where Arsene can rest a couple of players. Given that Villa have a young team of their own, this might be an opportune time to give Coquelin a start. Any of the three starters in midfield could take a break for different reasons. Arteta has given a lot this season. Cazorla has probably never played at this intensity on a weekly basis before. And Wilshere is just coming back from a major injury-enforced break. All of them could use a break so that they don’t burn out by the home stretch.
Similarly, either Podolski or Giroud could take a break while Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain get a game. At the back, the return of Gibbs could give Wenger the chance to rest one of his centre-backs. Jenkinson could also come in for Sagna.
Let’s not forget, Arsenal have a big game at Merseyside in midweek that will have an impact on the race for the Champions League spots.
You could say that many changes by the manager would give the squad an indication that he’s thinking of this game as an easy one, a suggestion that could foster complacency. But I’m not convinced by that argument. Players like Coquelin, Jenkinson, and Oxlade-Chamberlain have to show that they can come in and do the job. How else can we believe in squad depth? And why should we assume the players will become complacent when they’ve so much to prove?
Looking at Wenger’s team selection decisions over the last few seasons though, it’s tough to say the manager will make too many changes. I expect to see the same midfield but there might be a couple of changes in attack and defence combined. It’ll depend on the fitness levels of Gibbs and Gervinho.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Gervinho, Giroud, Podolski.
I can see the case for Oxlade-Chamberlain being picked over Gervinho or, as stated earlier, both of them starting with perhaps Podolski taking a break. Aston Villa have highly inexperienced full-backs and one would expect Arsenal’s wide players to have a major say in the attacking third of the pitch. This could be a great opportunity for young Alex, particularly if Stevens doesn’t get enough support from his winger (Agbonlahor?). Let’s see if Wenger thinks the same and gives the young Englishman his chance.
Paul Lambert is banned from the touchline for this fixture. How big an impact will that have on the game/result?
The match preview on the official website has an unmistakeable ultra-positive tone, which some might consider premature. Lee Dixon doesn’t think Arsenal will win this game. I am ambivalent. The starting line-up, refereeing decisions, the dreaded handbrake, individual bloopers… there’s just too many variables that could affect the result.
On an unrelated but important note, what’s the buzz on Arsenal’s new deal with Emirates? I haven’t had a chance to read much about it, will appreciate any thoughts you can share.Follow @goonerdesi