Arsenal 1 -3 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

August 18, 2013

In the preview I was talking about how every possible result was conceivable. The opening minutes gave the impression that this could be a comfortable win. Then there was a period when the team switched into the allow-the-opposition-back-into-the-game mode. At half time many fans must still have been confident that a result could be ground out. Anthony Taylor did his thing and Villa took the lead. For a while, even at 1-2, and then with only 10 men, it seemed like the players were fighting and a draw was possible. In the end, the worst possible outcome ensured there will be tremendous pressure on the manager and the players for foreseeable future unless they string together a run of form that is, at the moment, inconceivable.

Given the lack of depth on the bench and the frustrations of the summer transfer window, it’s easy to understand why many fans instinctively linked this result with a failure to sign quality players. There is a correlation there and top class players always help a team, that much is undeniable. Similarly, there is no possible rational way to suggest this squad does not need additions. However, I find the lack of action in the transfer market to be a separate problem and don’t believe the result of this game was down to the blank slate labelled ‘New Acquisitions’.

The point here is not to defend the state of affairs as they stand but to focus on the actual problems from this game, which, if you think really hard, are actually a lot more alarming than Arsenal’s inability to sign players. You might not realize this right now but if the issues we saw on the pitch are not addressed, new players are not going to make a big enough impact. With that thought in mind I don’t want to spend too much time on transfer talk in this article. Let’s stick to the events of the game.

The start was, as previously noted, quite comfortable. I thought Villa were a bit tentative and lacked cohesiveness, a problem we’ll later associate with the Gunners. They set out to defend around the centre line but their pressing wasn’t coordinated across the board. The hosts found it fairly easy to move the ball around and the goal came from a fairly simple sequence of events despite the length that the ball travelled on the pitch.

Wilshere’s composure and ability to turn and lose his man started it deep on the left in the Arsenal half. Rosicky held off Vlaar’s pressure and turned away from him into space, which resulted in a broken back line for the visitors. Oxlade-Chamberlain held his run and was released into acres of space. Giroud was completely free in the box and guided it in deftly.

After the goal the Gunners maintained decent possession but signs of trouble were visible as early as the 10th minute when Arsenal’s 4-4-2 off-the-ball shape was visibly static as Villa exploited space down their left flank. That particular move didn’t result in a highlights-worthy moment but Lambert’s men, or boys, were slowly growing into the game. In contrast, Wenger’s wards were slowly drifting away as they couldn’t quite decide the level of risk they needed to take or the kind of intensity that had to be maintained. After the goal I don’t recall any noteworthy chance being created in the first half.

This lack of clarity from a tactical point of view (often after an early lead has been taken) has been a long standing problem and has cost the team valuable points over the last couple of seasons. It paralyzes the team, creates the impression that players don’t care, and gives the opposition greater belief and momentum.

Once the visitors realized they could get something from this game it was only a matter of when, not if, they were going to score. The equalizer was an unbearably soft goal to concede made worse only by its sheer predictability as Ramsey and Wilshere combined to leave a massive hole in front of the defence that sucked Koscielny in and made Agbonlahor look like Messi for a moment.

The goal obviously gave Villa greater confidence and that in turn helped them with their defensive structure and solidity. They also went increasingly harder for the 50-50s with the referee seemingly keen on levelling the technical disparity between the sides.

Six minutes just after the hour mark changed everything with utter incompetence being the kindest words one could choose for the Ref’s performance. A seemingly excellent tackle was deemed to be a foul and a penalty awarded to Villa with a Yellow card given to Koscielny. Soon after the Frenchman was sent off for a second bookable offence, which, while it can be considered a yellow-card offence, was the kind of challenge most officials let slide with a stern warning. There is no doubt Taylor played a starring role in Villa’s victory but blaming him for the defeat would cover over way too many cracks in the Gunner ranks.

We have to wonder why Arsenal keep getting into such messy defensive situations on so frequent a basis. How can a ‘proven player’ and a ‘star acquisition’ like Cazorla be so lax as he was when Agbonlahor pinched his pocket in the build up to the second goal. From what should be a harmless position just inside the Villa half from Arsenal’s point of view, it took the Englishman three unchallenged touches to get into the hosts’ penalty area. It’s said that you make your own luck but in Arsenal’s case with a complete lack of shape or defensive awareness it was more of a matter of inviting your own misfortune.

Having had the booking, one could again say Koscielny should have been a lot more careful. But while going forward in search of the equalizer the Gunners again left gaping holes in front of the defence and the Frenchman succumbed to his own aggressive temperament. A long punt forward, which was just a clearance and bounced off the back of Benteke’s head, actually fell to the rapidly advancing Weimann with no midfielder/fullback in a position to support the central defenders. I don’t know of any other club with pretentions of being one of the top European sides that gets into a tragi-comic defensive disarray this often and as easily.

At the end of last season there was genuine effort and improvement in this regard but, as I’d noted at that time, it came at the cost of offensive potency and was not something Wenger was going to live with for too long. Arsenal need that calibre of collective defending AND have to find greater incision and goal threat in conjunction with that. Focus on flair and attacking desire that comes at the cost of stability at the back will often lead to situations where the team starts conceding chances and loses confidence. As we’ve seen, confidence once lost can be a very hard thing to regain.

A related observation was that Arsenal did seemingly try to emulate the German 4-4-2 with the advanced midfielder pressing alongside the striker but most of the Gunners lack the tactical know-how to execute that in a ruthless and efficient manner with minimum risk. I should not single Arsenal out though, as I’d discussed here it’s an approach that the German clubs appear to have refined with years of work. Most other teams are not as efficient and effective at executing it. This won’t click for Wenger and his players any time soon and could be a very risky strategy for the short term.

Despite going down to 10 men the Gunners should get credit for their fighting spirit. Rosicky and Cazorla could have brought the team level but Guzan produced quality saves.

Villa’s third goal killed the game and it was again a very soft, typical Arsenal gift – Corner to the Gunners, goal/chance to the opponents. How often have we seen that?! When Cazorla took that ill-advised shot from outside the box you could see 10 Villa players in their own box and one just outside in the arc on the edge of the penalty area. The eventual goalscorer was the same guy who blocked Cazorla’s shot on the edge of the box!

Arsenal had six players beyond the 18 yard line including Walcott near the corner flag, Cazorla was on the edge of the box, and two players were behind him. How does a team go from that to a clear one-v-one for the opponent against their goalkeeper within a matter of second with just one worthwhile pass?! The lack of defensive awareness and the tendency to get lost in ball-watching is beyond alarming, it’s been one of the core issues preventing Arsenal from fulfilling the potential the team otherwise has. This isn’t an issue one or two transfers can solve unless Wenger finds the perfect coach to add to his team.

There are a couple of other issues that are worth discussing. Arsenal struggled against Villa’s physical challenges in this game, some of which were clearly fouls, but it wasn’t that Lambert had sent out a particularly physically imposing side. While the physicality angle was clearly visible, it wasn’t so much about physical attributes as it was about the manifestation of confidence and tactical clarity in the form of greater desire and sharpness. On the other hand, Arsenal were slower in the minds than is needed for the kind of game they want to play because of a lack of tactical clarity and this resulted in a reactionary performance rather than a proactive and dominant one.

The other point is that Villa didn’t win this game by having better individuals on the pitch, they won it by having better cohesive output (with a generous dose of luck). In that sense, buying more players is not going to help Arsenal if they cannot have the whole unit on the same tactical page. Of course, one might say for that to happen a clearly comprehensible tactical blueprint must first exist but that’s a whole different can of worms that I don’t want to touch right now.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Got lucky with the first penalty but didn’t have any control on the save as it went straight back to Benteke. Might have been sent off if the ref hadn’t played advantage. Not a confidence-inspiring display.

Sagna: Took a lot of blows and a serious fall for the team’s cause, also did a decent job at left back. Did not make any sort of a meaningful offensive contribution and it might have been better if he’d stayed a little deeper. For instance, it might have been easier for him to track Weimann’s run that got Koscielny his second yellow card.

Mertesacker: Had a steady enough game.

Koscielny: Very unfortunate to concede the penalty and the subsequent sending off was also harsh. But he should also know how to stay on his feet, particularly after he’s been booked. This wasn’t a day he’d like to remember.

Gibbs: Was looking good before he picked up that injury. It’s one of the smaller details but his presence would have helped the team’s balance.

Jenkinson: He was effective in a conservative role at the start of last season and needs to go back to that. Focus on defending and get it right, keep things simple, and the rest will come later. At the moment he looks a bit out of his depth when he tries to emulate the level of involvement that Sagna offers.

It couldn’t have been a great day at the office for the defenders if the team conceded three goals but the quality of officiating and the performance of the midfield does lessen the blame falling on their shoulders.

Ramsey: Work rate was excellent and he was trying till the very end but I thought he should have played more horizontally in Arteta’s absence and left Wilshere more room a little further up the pitch.

Rosicky: MotM, if one can be given after such a performance and result. Desire was always there and he was involved with everything Arsenal did offensively including the pre-assist for the goal, the two chances that he created for himself with clever one-twos, and the chance for Cazorla. His ability to beat the opponents in one-v-ones was excellent. Finishing could have been better. Needs to graduate from unnecessary and risky sliding tackles to a more intelligent form of defending.

Wilshere: Another one whose effort cannot be questioned and he does bring something special to the side, just not on a consistently decisive basis to cover up his lack of defensive awareness and recovery pace. There is a big learning curve in front of him if he has to go from a massive potential to a truly big player. Does deserve better protection from the referee.

Cazorla: Didn’t look ready but that doesn’t excuse the kind of performance he put in. Let his teammates and coaches down badly, not to mention the fans. His touch was poor, bordering on careless at times and that resulted in two turnovers that got Koscielny booked. Very bad choice to shoot from the edge of such a crowded box when a better pass down the inside channel was available. Having taken the shot he should have been alert to Luna’s movement but instead was simply watching the ball. Very disappointing from an experienced pro.

The midfield did not do enough to protect the defence and they did not have enough guile, skill, or coordination to offensively compensate for their defensive lapses. There is a strong case to be made for a top class defensive signing, particularly now that Diaby and Coquelin are also not there. But that doesn’t mean the players who are there shouldn’t be doing much better.

Walcott: Not his kind of game. Villa played deep and narrow for large periods and he was crowded out whenever he got near the penalty box. Nobody found him with a ball in behind with Wilshere missing the best opportunity by under-hitting a pass. He is a limited player and when the team can’t play to his strengths he will make a limited contribution. Surprising that he takes free-kicks.

Giroud: Good goal, combined beautifully with Rosicky on a couple of occasions, and another player whose effort was top notch. Finishing quality has always been average and that showed in some of the half-chances that he got. Needs to bring others into the game more often but that’s a matter of developing collective instincts.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: Did well to hold his run and picked his pass well for the assist. Has to make himself available more often and be involved more. This was still a very individualistic performance from a player who has the potential but lacks the knowhow to benefit from his teammates’ skills.

All the three have something special to offer but they also have their own sets of limitations. In a game like this where the opponents gain confidence and hold their shape while the Gunners lose their tactical clarity, it’s always more likely that the limitations are exposed rather than their skills shining through. Again, there is a strong case to be made for buying a world class player who can make things happen but I’m not convinced there are too many around who would come to Arsenal (I don’t put Higuain in that category as he too has many limitations, Suarez might be the only (fading) hope).

Subs: Podolski came on very late in the game and I’ve covered the other two above.

Wenger: He will get a lot of flak for lack of signings but I’m more concerned by his inability to strike a balance between attack and defence for the duration of a season irrespective of the players he has out on the pitch. In my opinion this is linked with not having coaches from countries that are a little more advanced tactically and technically when compared to England/Britain.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

August 17, 2013

This summer has flown by so quickly I’m finding it hard to digest the fact that the new season kicks off today. But based on previous experience it’s not hard to understand that for most fans competitive action involving Arsenal could not begin soon enough. Let’s get straight to the game at hand.

It’s nigh on impossible to predict just how either side will perform in the first game of the season. Pre-season form is hardly a reliable measure and estimating the impact of transfers, especially the kind that Villa have made, is going to be a hard task even for Paul Lambert.

The Gunners are in a familiar boat, regrettably you might say, so it’s a little easier to anticipate the patterns of play we are likely to see. I haven’t had a chance to note the outstanding observations from the previous season but one of those was the improvement and importance of the collective defending.

Since the start of last season many players talked about working on the ‘shape of the team’, and we did see the results in the form of a compact display in many games, which, while it came at the cost of offensive potency, did result in vital points. On the other hand, the search for balance between an incisive attack and a stable defence was a season long quest that didn’t really end on any sort of a definitive note.

This pre-season I saw the team express it’s offensive qualities in patches that produced enthralling football but those were also marked with defensive lapses. At the same time there were periods of composure and control at the back (long periods against City for example) when the team seemed at ease without the ball.

The question is, what will we see at the Emirates today? At the time of writing I honestly can’t decide what mood the players will be in. If they are really confident we could see them coming out with greater offensive exuberance and that in turn will undoubtedly give Villa a few chances on the break. A more conservative mentality, that was so useful at the end of last season, could see a tight opening period with the hosts shading it towards the end phases.

Given the absence of Mikel Arteta and players like Diaby or Coquelin who brought in certain helpful defensive traits when they played in 12-13, I’m conditioning myself to be prepared for a few lapses in positioning and decision making from the midfield that will expose the back five. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s side score a goal or two tomorrow as long as they take their chances.

That means the Gunners will need two or more goals to win this game. Giroud showed an improved awareness of the goalposts during the pre-season games and Ramsey made some excellent offensive contributions. Walcott wasn’t quite as clinical as I’d like him to be during the friendly fixtures but his standout individual qualities can always be decisive. Add the talents of Wilshere, Cazorla, and Rosicky into the mix and there is sufficient reason to be optimistic about Arsenal’s chances against the Villa defence.

Wenger’s choices in midfield will be telling. Ramsey and Wilshere are exceptional talents with big futures ahead of them but will they have the maturity to curb their instincts and choose their moments for maximum impact if chosen to play in the deeper areas, particularly in tandem?!

The concern is not that Arsenal do not possess enough players to create and score goals against a young visiting side but more that an imbalanced midfield could give the visitors an early impetus while sucking the confidence out of the hosts, particularly if the crowd gets restless and starts heckling. It could easily turn into a very long 90 minutes if that dreaded handbrake comes on.

The back five can protect the goal as long as they get requisite cover from those in front. The entire team has to defend as a unit, something they showed they were capable of last season. Mertesacker’s leadership will be tested if the midfield duo in front is inexperienced and impetuous.

Wenger could also compensate for the loss of Arteta by asking Sagna to take on a more conservative role. By staying deeper he could cover his flank and probably free Koscielny up to cover behind Gibbs. However, I think the bigger problem could come from the fact that Benteke is likely to pull towards the left and could then link up with teammates to release Weimann or Agbonlahor in behind. Mertesacker would have a very hard time against the pace of the attackers if the Belgian constantly engages Koscielny in duels. Again, Sagna’s presence in deeper areas and his ability to track the runners before making vital interventions could prove decisive.

With all that in mind, I’m going to watch the first game to see – 1) How much confidence the players have, 2) The kind of fitness and concentration levels they show and the quality of their performance late in the game, 3) Their ability to hold on to or turn around the result depending on the circumstances, and 4) Whether the crowd has a positive or negative impact on the performance.

Arsene has a few choices to make for his starting eleven. The back five should probably pick themselves, although Fabianski might say he deserves a start ahead of Szczesny.

The midfield is where the big question marks are. I’d not pick Cazorla with Wilshere and Ramsey. Rosicky would add a bit more discipline without forcing Santi into a conservative role. Little Mozart is also more natural at dropping back if his younger cohorts dash forward more often than necessary. Is he fully fit?

I’d like to see,

Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.

The upcoming weeks have some crucial fixtures and confidence could be a big factor. Any kind of a performance/result combination that helps on that front should be good enough. Obviously, a win will always help and the bigger the better, but that’s not the only option. For instance, if the team completely dominates the game and only picks up a point because Guzan produced some miracle saves, then that too could help with the confidence. Similarly, a late turnaround or a dramatic comeback to even tie the game can generate positive momentum. In the same vein, a late collapse, even if it’s just a draw, would be just as crushing as any defeat.

Right now I can imagine an easy win, a ground out result, a score draw, and a bitterly disappointing defeat all happening with equal probability. Some fans will be a lot more optimistic and others will take a grim view. Whatever you chose, don’t lose sight of the relevant details and don’t forget to enjoy the game!

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

November 24, 2012

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.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

December 21, 2011

Four games in the next 13 days should give Arsenal sufficient opportunity to bounce back from the recent disheartening defeat against the League leaders. Given the state of injuries in defence though, Arsene will have to take things game by game. There isn’t much room left for tinkering, particularly at the back. And without his strongest defence the manager might not feel too confident about giving some of the fringe players a game during the holiday period.

At Villa Park, at least two changes will be forced as Djourou and Song will miss out due to injury and suspension. This means either Squillaci or Miquel will have to start in defence. Neither is an ideal option but if the team has to accommodate likely errors, it’d be better to invest in the future and give the youngster a chance to improve.

In the midfield, Song’s absence could open the door for Frimpong or Coquelin. I can’t see the likes of Benayoun or Rosicky perform the Cameroonian’s role effectively. But Wenger could go for one of the experienced players if he feels confident that Arteta and Ramsey can share the defensive burden.

Preferred starting line-up,

Szczesny – Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Miquel – Coquelin, Ramsey, Arteta – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.

I have gone for Coquelin as he seems to have better technical abilities. So far he hasn’t really had a chance with most of the first team and I want to see how he does with some quality players around him. Arsene could pick Frimpong if he thinks the side is losing some physicality with the loss of Djourou and Song.

With Heskey joining Bent on the sidelines, Villa’s attack should be about the pace of Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia. Coquelin’s game intelligence can also come in handy to thwart counter-attacking opportunities. Watch out for a number of long balls down the channels. But the Frenchman might not be that useful in defending set-pieces, the hosts’ other major attacking threat.

McLeish created a very strong defensive unit at Birmingham that was tough to beat at their home. So far he hasn’t been able to recreate the same at Villa. Dunne and Collins are what I consider typical British style defenders – big, lumbering, slow, and heavily reliant on tackling and physicality. Along with Hutton and Warnock, this is not a defence that should keep Arsenal out. I believe this game is tailor-made for Gervinho to shine but the Ivorian will have to do much better with his final ball and finishing.

If the Scottish manager does revert to type, I am worried Arsenal could return from this trip further depleted by injuries. His Birmingham side wasn’t shy of kicking players on and off the ball, and with the likes of Hutton at his disposal, McLeish could set his side up to beat Arsenal, literally.

The tempo of this game will have an impact on the result. Arsenal will win it with relative ease if they can move the ball at the speed we saw in the previous game. But if we get one of those “lacked sharpness” days, Villa will be able to control the game defensively and get more bodies forward in attack. It will make the game a more even contest, in which case the hosts can steal a point or three.

A lot of fans believe this particular Arsenal side is mentally stronger and will bounce back from the defeat instead of getting caught up in a negative spiral as some of the recent units have done. They don’t really have much room for slip-ups as a couple of bad results during the Christmas period could see the Gunners drop down to sixth or seventh, if not worse. On the other hand, a strong run could put Arsenal back in the top four if Chelsea don’t get a grip on their erratic form. Let’s see which Arsenal side turns up at Villa Park.

Arsenal 1 – 2 Aston Villa: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

May 15, 2011

This was a hard game to write about. There was so much to like and appreciate. But all if it was marred by a few stinkers that make it hard to breathe normally even after a few hours since the game ended.

In the preview, I mentioned that Bent was the kind of striker who thrives on defensive errors. The Gunners made plenty of those to gift the striker a couple of goals in the opening fifteen minutes. It was an uphill batter after that.

I don’t know what Squillaci was doing when he ambled back and strayed from the off-side line. If he’d held his position the Englishman would have been miles off. Simple enough thing to do really.

I don’t know what Sagna was doing when he stopped tracking his man. The former Sunderland striker is not the kind of player who is going to take on a defender and score. I’m convinced Bent would have fluffed his chance if Sagna had gone with the run.

I don’t know what Szczesny was doing for either goal. Thankfully, he is in the good books of the fans and will not be ripped to shreds like Almunia would have been if he’d conceded these goals.

In the past couple of seasons four goalkeepers and a dozen or so defenders have made some ridiculous mistakes at the back. The problem is really serious and deep rooted. A fundamental change is needed and it will not come by signing one or two players. The commentator mentioned that Pat Rice will be staying for another year. I don’t know if that is good news or bad. It’s hard to blame the guy who has given so much to the club over such a long time and has been part of some fantastic achievements. I don’t want to blame him. But that doesn’t mean Arsenal don’t need more and better.

There has to be a radical change in the way everyone at Arsenal thinks about defending and I’m afraid it can only come with outside help. More on this in detail during the summer when we will have to survive without football for a long time.

After those two goals it was all Arsenal but that wasn’t enough.

The first half was tough. There weren’t many chances for the home side. Once again the midfield was struggling to move the ball and the wide players were rendered ineffective. The Villa goal wasn’t being tested as often as we would have liked.

It might all have changed just before the half hour mark when Dunne brought Ramsey down. A penalty and a straight red were the obvious decisions for the officials to make. Not for the first time this season, the officials bottled it when the time came to make a call that would turn the game towards Arsenal.

Soon after Van Persie hit the post. Those were the two best chances of the first half for the Gunners.

Nonetheless, I was really impressed by the second half. Every single player fought hard. They tried everything; crosses, shots from distance, intricate passing, you name it. Still it wasn’t enough. Friedel made some good saves. Villa maintained their shape and got their bodies between shots and the goal.

The goal, can’t really be considered consolation, came in the dying minutes of normal time. Sagna floated in a cross. Bendtner got on the end of it and drew three defenders to the ball, which fell kindly to Van Persie amidst all the chaos. The Dutchman showed calmness and good awareness to put it into the corner giving the keeper no chance.

There were a few positives from the game.

Chamakh showed some good touches. There was a moment in the first half when the Moroccan won the ball at the centre of the Villa half. He had four or five defenders around him and no real support. I liked the way he played it out wide to Walcott and charged into the box. Theo’s cross was a good one but just a bit ahead of the striker’s lunge. That’s plan B. That’s the kind of variation that forces opponents to change their style. We need a lot more of that on a consistent basis. Not for this season but for the future. I also liked the goal he scored. Hard to see a foul there. I have seen our defenders pushed around a lot more.

I also liked the way Gibbs played in the second half after a lacklustre showing in the first forty-five. He offered a lot in attack and defence reminding us of the talent that he possesses. It was as if some invisible shackles had been lifted from the young man. He was a lot more confident in tackling and purposeful with his runs and movement. It reinforces the belief that the present system tends to burden the full-backs a lot, especially on the left, thereby limiting their ability to fulfil their potential. It’s another issue that will need serious work and is related to the main point about defence mentioned earlier.

Bendtner too looked like a real menace whenever he got into the box. His first involvement was winning a header from a corner at the back post which led to a good chance. He also made a vital contribution to the goal. I have no doubt we have enough variety in the squad to develop multiple variations in attack. But it is all driven from the vision of the man at the top.

Finally, it was great to see Vermaelen back in the squad. He offers something extra with his technique and his shooting skills. It wasn’t a fairytale return but I, for one, am pleased to have him back.

Individual Performances:

Szczesny: Another disappointing game. For the second goal he looked more eager to blame the defenders even before concentrating on saving the shot that went straight through him.

Sagna: Horrible mistake for the second goal. Charged forward without a plan and got in the way of Walcott too often. That issue has to be sorted out.

Squillaci: Just keeps giving people more reasons to dislike him.

Vermaelen: Decent performance on his return after a long time. Looked composed on the ball. Took a couple of shots from distance.

Gibbs: Poor first half, encouraging second half. Some of his tackling was top class. His runs in attacking areas were well timed. Could have done more with his final ball and, on one occasion, his finishing.

Seems like Szczesny has taken over from Almunia is the goalkeeping blunders department. Squillaci just took over Djourou’s recent woeful form. At least Vermaelen was as solid as Koscielny has been in recent weeks. Gibbs gave a glimpse that the talent in him is not completely dead.

Song: Awful. Not sure what he was trying to do. Passing was extremely poor. Wasn’t as close to the defenders as he should have been. Almost gifted a goal to Bent in the second half but Vermaelen’s presence was enough to put the striker off.

Ramsey: One very good run in the box that could and should have changed the game. Showed good skill on occasions but his overall contribution was again very disappointing. Didn’t move the ball well enough and didn’t offer enough of an attacking threat as is expected from a player in that role.

Wilshere: Probably playing on his last legs. Another exhausted effort from the youngster with a few bright moments spread between a largely ineffective performance.

Once again the midfield was quite poor. When the team was tentative early on, they should have dropped back and provided some solidity in front of the defence. Villa were looking to come out and that would have opened up the game for Theo and Arshavin. The coaches and manager on the bench have to drill this message into the players and have to make a decisive contribution from the sidelines if it isn’t working.

Walcott: Has been crowded out way too often in the recent weeks. Has to change flanks more often when that happens. It seems to me that this midfield just doesn’t have an eye for the runs that he makes. Fabregas made it look way too easy. Some of his delivery was excellent.

RvP: Kept plugging away and got his reward at the end. Has to do better with his set-pieces and free-kicks. Strange thing is that he had improved in that department but seems to have regressed. Could be a mental thing related with the form of the team. Wasn’t very effective in a deeper role after Chamakh came on.

Arshavin: Couldn’t offer enough. Another player who got into interesting positions and was ready to make some runs but the midfielder on the ball never spotted it or couldn’t find him.

Subs: Chamakh should have had a goal. Bendtner should have started.

Wenger: Poor choice to start with both Arshavin and Walcott. Substitutions were decent. Should have sent the team out with a plan. Has to be ready for and must prepare his team to deal with the effects of a poor run by playing a more cautious style initially. Cautious isn’t ideal but is better than confused and all over the place.

I want to end by mentioning that there was a lot to observe in this game. There were some classic examples of the weaknesses that this team has. We also saw some genuine glimpses where concentrated effort can result in a stronger, more diverse, and infinitely more threatening performances. More on this after a couple of weeks.

Thoughts On Tactics And Starting Eleven Against Aston Villa

May 13, 2011

So, the BSM weekend is upon us. I hope the protesters don’t get carried away. Such a ‘walk’ can be a healthy and respectful demonstration of one’s point but it could easily turn into a complete mess. I don’t want to pass any comment on the event before seeing how it turns out so will leave it for the time being.

More interestingly and importantly (although some might disagree with the importance), we have a game at home against Aston Villa. In terms of Arsenal news and stories this week has been tiresome and felt like a year. I, for one, can’t wait for the game where a result is needed because a place in the top 3 carries more value than the fourth spot. From a psychological point as well, it would feel good to finish above City.

Tactically, Houllier’s Villa are different from that of O’Neill. This side tries to move the ball better and doesn’t rely as much on hoofs. That said, I won’t be surprised if they regress into old habits when the going gets tough. Unfortunately, that fallback to the primitive style could trouble us a lot more than their attempts to play ball.

Bent is a largely harmless striker who specializes in the sucker punch. The central defenders will have to be alert to his movement but more importantly they need to maintain their focus. The former Sunderland man thrives on lapses in concentration by defenders.

Ashley Young will be a threat but I expect Song to keep him in check.

Apart from that it is the usual set-piece vulnerability that will have many of us biting our nails every time Villa get a chance to float one into the Arsenal box.

In attack, I expect the Gunners to find spaces in the opposition half and the final third. This visiting side is not as well drilled in the dark arts of defending as the one managed by MoN. However, if the midfield is as laborious as it was against Stoke we might as well gift the opponents a clean sheet.

Wilshere is clearly exhausted after a marathon season. A while back Wenger mentioned this when he said that the youngster had hit a wall and the internal statistics showed that.

With that in mind, I’d love to see Vermaelen given the job of playing alongside Song in midfield but it won’t happen so I’m not spending too much time on discussing the benefits of such a move.

Wilshere will start so let’s keep the focus on that. I don’t expect a big game from the youngster but would prefer if he is given the simple task of staying back and spreading the ball. If he tries going forward with the ball it will crowd the attacking areas and slow things down.

Ramsey is the man who should take charge of creating in the final third along with RvP.

I’d also like to see Gibbs getting a game on the left in an attacking role in front of Clichy. The youngster has the pace to attack the back post when Theo gets the ball on the right. He can also put in some crosses for RvP and Walcott. This is not an ideal choice but it’s a move that should be tried just to see how it pans out. It could help in developing some flexibility next season.

Once again, I don’t really expect to see Gibbs in that role. Arshavin will be the most likely starter.

Preferred starting eleven

Szczesny – Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Ramsey, Vermaelen – Walcott, RvP, Gibbs.

Expected starting line-up,

Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Clichy – Song, Ramsey, Wilshere – Walcott, RvP, Arshavin.

Ideally this game should have been a straightforward win. Given the recent form I don’t know what to expect. We could get some good football and a few goals. It could just as easily turn into an embarrassment after some bloopers at the back. At least it will be football.

Before I end, I wanted to share a few links. There were a couple of intelligent and humorous pieces on ArsenalArsenal in the last week. This one is about St. Totteringham’s day (some comments are brilliant) while this one makes an excellent point in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  Do check them out if you haven’t already done so.

I also wanted to share this video of a stand-up act that I discovered recently in the course of random surfing. It’s not related to game of football per se, but talks about Liverpool, City, and United. I particularly liked the guy’s take on the Manchester clubs.

Aston Villa 2 – 4 Arsenal: Match Thoughts And Individual Analysis

November 28, 2010

Arsenal needed heroes. Arshavin and Chamakh answered the call with great support from Nasri and Rosicky. I think in terms of moving the ball and creating chances, this game was amongst the best we have played so far this season. As I’d mentioned earlier, the injury to Cesc looks like a blessing in disguise.

The first half was all Arsenal. Villa had a solitary half-chance at the back post and even that might have been offside. The home side tried playing the ball out from defence and just couldn’t do it. O’Neill has left them in such a poor state that Houllier will need a great deal of time and patience to change their style. I’m not complaining because that made it easy for Arsenal to dominate the play.

Arsenal could have scored four or more in the first half. Rosicky was a little short of confidence and composure in the box and Nasri missed an open net. Thankfully, Arshavin had his shooting boots on and we got the bit of luck that we needed.

The first goal came when a clearance from the back was completely missed by Luke Young and Collins as the Villa defenders got in each other’s way. Arshavin picked the ball on the left and was able to charge at the goal. The Russian magician dropped his shoulder to create half a yard of space and smashed his shot that went in between the legs of the defender and despite a touch by the Keeper.

I wonder how people would have reacted if an Arsenal Keeper got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. But that’s a thought for some other day.

The second one came from a bit of creativity on a set-piece. Yes! At long last we did see some variation on a corner even if it was a simple one. Arshavin lobbed the ball deep towards the edge of the box and Nasri got his volley on target. It went in off a deflection but the goal was well deserved.

2-0 lead at half-time, chance to go top of the league, Villa had to get a goal. They got it but only because of some sloppy play by the midfield and a howler by the linesman and the ref. Carew was offside and right in front of Fabianski when Clark shot towards goal.

Ideally, if I know the rules right, the linesman should have raised his flag. He had no way of knowing whether Carew was interfering with play or not. The ref would then have to decide based on his position. Why the flag never came I do not know.

Surprisingly, the Arsenal players were more interested in expressing their disappointment and frustration rather than being alert to the offside. Even the Keeper, who was clearly impeded, didn’t complain to the linesman. Disappointing.

I think that was down to the fact that they’ve been under pressure for far too long and it’s difficult for them to keep their focus at such a time. Should they’ve received a shout from the bench? I’m not sure because a delayed appeal is not likely to have much impact. I would love to see such a goal being given against United.

It didn’t matter much because this time Arsenal had the perfect response to the goal. Arshavin collected the ball on the flank at the halfway line. He held off his man and found Rosicky who turned his marker and split the defence for Chamakh. The Moroccan finished with an intelligent toe-poke.

After the third goal Arsenal did stop playing for a while and allowed Villa to push forward and gain some confidence. The defence was exposed as the midfielders and attacking players didn’t move well enough and that made it difficult for the backline to pass the ball forward. They were forced into hoofing it forward and it came back in no time. Villa were able to sustain a spell of possession and created some pressure.

It paid off when they scored the second. Clark was left unmarked in the box as Song and Koscielny were watching the ball. Fabianski and Clichy on the line couldn’t do much as the ball crept in off the underside of the bar.

Arsenal back five had to hold firm as the front six just couldn’t keep the ball for long. Credit to the defence for limiting the chances Villa could create.

Arshavin moved into a central position and Rosicky moved to the left to help Clichy who was being double-teamed time and again. Arsenal moved to a 4-4-1-1 kind of system in the final 15-20 minutes. It wasn’t enough but at least that’s a sign of some tactical change. I’d have preferred if we’d brought Djourou on for Arshavin after the third goal. Wilshere could have moved into an advanced role and Djourou could have played as a second DM. The Swiss defender would have provided us with some much needed physical and aerial presence.

In the final five minutes Arsenal brought on Denilson and Gibbs for Arshavin and Nasri. Rosicky moved to the right and Gibbs provided better support to Clichy. Wilshere got into an advanced position. This allowed him get in the box in injury time and get a well deserved goal, his first in the League for Arsenal.

Some of the long standing problems are still there and I don’t expect them to disappear overnight. Nonetheless, it was great to see Arshavin and Chamakh back to their best. I have no doubt the rest worked wonders for them. Now the team selection against Braga doesn’t look so bad, does it?

Individual Performances

Fabianski: third game in a row, not much to do and couldn’t do much about the goals.

Sagna: excellent all over the right flank. Put in some good crosses.

Squillaci: untroubled in the first half. Could have done a bit better in the second. Dealt with Carew’s strength really well.

Koscielny: read the game really well. Looked solid while tackling. Could have done a little better for the second goal.

Clichy: superb. Took their winger out of the game for long periods. Was often under pressure when he was double-teamed in the second half, but dealt with it really well. Made some excellent interceptions.

On the whole, I don’t have many complaints against the defenders. They were exposed when the forward players reduced their off the ball movement.

Song: Played deeper and much closer to the defence and did a good job of moving the ball in the first half. Switched off a bit in the second and seemed unsure of his role.

Wilshere: Very similar to Song. Went missing for a while in the second half when Villa created some pressure but did well for large parts. Finished his chance with class. Looked threatening whenever he got into advanced areas.

Rosicky: top class performance in the central attacking role. A goal would have been good for him but his finishing let him down. Was involved with most attacks and created the third goal with a wonderful through-ball. Good defensive contribution in the final half hour.

The midfielders played a key part in Arsenal’s domination of the first half. I was a bit disappointed in the second half as the midfield didn’t do enough. Surely either Song or Wilshere should have been close enough to the defence to block the shot by Clark.

Nasri: excellent runs, good finish, decent defensive effort, good work rate.

Chamakh: close second in my MOTM list. Exceptional work rate, good goal, top class assist, looked fresh and hungry.

Arshavin: My MOTM. Was involved with almost everything going forward. Scored the all important first goal with an individual effort. Good defensive shift, good communication with teammates.

Subs: didn’t have much time on the pitch, but Gibbs and Denilson did their part.

The attackers were excellent for large parts. There was some hesitation in their off-the-ball movement in the second half and just like the midfielders they should have done better.

I don’t think it’s a problem with individuals but more a mental issue and Wenger will have to find the answer. Hopefully, the win will be good for the confidence.

Arsenal Need Heroes Against The Villains

November 26, 2010

This preview is another article on the road so I’ll try to keep it short and to the point.

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog why this game is bigger than it would normally have been. I also have a feeling it will be much tougher than it has been in the past, even though a trip to Villa Park is one of the hardest in the League on most occasions.

Arsenal need a hero or heroes to rise up. Fans need to see some players taking up the gauntlet. We’ve surrendered two games where the opposition should have been annihilated. Now we must see a dominant and decisive display.

Aston Villa are in a phase of transition from the boring, tactical approach of O’Neill to the more continental style of Houllier. They also seem to be adapting to the Arsenal style of blooding some talented youngsters.

The Villains drew with United even though they had a midfield comprising in part of kids like Bannan, Hogg, and Albrighton. If Fergie says he doesn’t know how United didn’t lose the game, you can be sure the opposition did really well. There is no doubt in my mind this will be a massive challenge.

Obviously, that makes Wenger’s team selection very important. In the absence of Cesc, a blessing in disguise I feel, we will have to see who leads the side out. I have a feeling it will be Rosicky and I’m hoping Little Mozart does as good a job as he is capable of.

There will be changes to the defence that lost at Braga. Sagna and Clichy should get their spots back. Will Arsene pick Koscielny over Djourou? I hope not. My choice would be to pick Koscielny over Squillaci but I’m not sure Arsene will agree with that.

In the middle Song should come back in the side and Wilshere should keep his place. I also want to see Rosicky get a game in the advanced role but many, including Arsene, might play Nasri there.

Up front, the trio that was so dominant in the first half against Spuds should be back. Some might say that Walcott on the right with Nasri in the middle is a good option. I don’t have an argument against that but right now I prefer Nasri on the right and don’t want to see him moved around a lot. He’s doing well there and a run of games in a fixed position will give the Frenchman a chance to step up a gear.

My starting eleven would look like,

Fabianski – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Rosicky, Wilshere – Nasri, Chamakh, Arshavin.

I don’t want to make predictions as some games that I thought should be easy wins have turned into defeats. In this case I think we have a team capable of getting a positive result but we need someone to step up and take charge. It won’t be hard to notice if they do. Let’s wait and watch.

Aston Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal: There’s Something About These Claret & Blue Teams

January 28, 2010

Arsenal return from Villa Park with a point. As we’d discussed a couple of days ago, it’s not a bad result by any means, except perhaps from the point of view of those people who actively seek out reasons to be negative.

Curiously enough, this is our third away draw of the season and all have come away to teams playing in Claret and Blue colors. First a 2 goal stalemate at Upton Park, then we shared a goal at Burnley and finally this nil-all result against Villa. What comes next could be a good IQ question, eh! Maybe Wenger should research the influence of colors on the players’ performance.

Jokes aside, there isn’t much to talk about from this game. Arsenal struggled once again as the passing game never clicked into gear. It’s another game which showed that in the absence of Song and to some extent Diaby, all the onus in the midfield falls on El Capitan. Cesc has to drop deep to collect the ball, he has to press opponents all over the field, help out in defense, he has to find the creative passes and make the lung bursting runs into the final third.

Villa came out with a simple game plan. Long balls down the wings and players moving forward in support. Cross and press at every opportunity. Hope someone gets a good connection inside the box. Unfortunately for them, the last part hasn’t worked in the last four games. I am not sure how O’Neill found Arsene’s comments “an appalling insult.” I thought they were quite matter of fact.

Defensively Villa were solid and their game plan worked for most parts. Most of our good attacks came through the middle and they did well to push the game wide and negate our movement. I was hoping we will shift play a little more to the center and the left but we never got into any sort of a rhythm.

In spite of our problems we created the best chances but apart from the couple of shots hitting the woodwork, Freidel didn’t have much to do. The first attempt from Fabregas was pure genius as he ran with the ball from the halfway line right into the Villa box skipping past challenges as if playing with a bunch of kids in a park. If he’d scored, it would have been a contender for the goal of the season ( at least in the eyes of those who can see beyond the long range strikes.)

Similarly, the second chance was created by a mesmerizing run by Arshavin. His attempt was saved by the keeper and Fabregas did well to set up Rosicky with a first time pass from an awkward height. The Czech captain’s effort was a little disappointing as he smashed it against the bar from ten yards.

I feel these are the games which are won by individual skills and we should have created space for the likes of Cesc and Arshavin. The problem was that Ramsey and Denilson weren’t really great in the defensive roles and too many players had to drop deep to help out leaving us short up front. Villa deserve some credit for working hard and moving the ball from flank to flank.

The worst part of the game was not the result but the injuries to Vermaelen and Eduardo. Hopefully, they won’t be long term but to be honest, I was expecting some casualties in this game. It’s not that Villa were dirty, they weren’t, but we are getting some players back from injury and given our luck it was only a matter of time before some others hit the treatment table.

At the end of the day, it’s not an ideal result but it’s not a disaster either. Our unbeaten run in the league continues and we can build on it against United.

Individual Performances

Almunia: Made a big save early on. Was decent with crosses and set pieces but not perfect. Another solid performance and he seems to be regaining confidence with every game.

Sagna: Solid defensively but didn’t offer enough going forward. To be fair Villa made it difficult for him.

Gallas: Managed Agbonlahor’s runs adequately. Was quite good while dealing with balls into the box as well.

Vermaelen: Was caught out early on by Heskey and picked up a yellow card but the injury is a far bigger concern. We will really struggle if he is out for the season!

Clichy: Still looks a bit rusty. We need to do better down the left and he needs to get forward. It might have been a team strategy to hold him back as Villa are strong down the wings.

Denilson: Another really poor game. The link between defense and midfield is just not working. He looks like a liability in the defensive third and on counter attacks.

Ramsey: Looked good on the ball at times but lost possession quite often. I guess it’s down to inexperience and these are the times when you appreciate the importance of simple sideways passing.

Cesc: By far the best player on the pitch. Right now he is having to do too much as his partners in midfield have been passengers.

Rosicky: I thought he was a touch too casual. Lost the ball a few times when you expect someone of his experience to do better. To an extent a victim of our game not working.

Eduardo: Doesn’t have the pace to play the lone front man when the rest of the team has to drop deep. Picked up another disappointing injury.

Arshavin: Didn’t get into the game for large parts. For a man of his quality, I expect him to take responsibility when the going gets tough but somehow he doesn’t seem to have that mentality.

Subs: Campbell had a decent game, Bendtner was clearly out of touch but it’s good to see him back and Nasri didn’t get much time

Aston Villa V Arsenal: Will The Real Arsenal Please Stand Up

January 27, 2010

So it begins. I guess all of us are looking forward to this period albeit with different mindsets. Some, like me, who believe in the team are hopeful of positive results over the next fortnight. Others are waiting for a slip-up so that they can come out and criticize the team and vent their frustrations.

In either case, judging by the response to yesterday’s article, I think most of us expect a win tomorrow, although some are cautious and believe it will be a draw. There aren’t many who think we will lose at Villa Park and hopefully the squad and the manager will have similar confidence. After all, history is on our side as we haven’t lost in the last ten league visits, while winning half our games.

Arsene is excited and wants to consolidate the league position. Speaking at the press conference Le Boss said,

It is an exciting period for us because we are in a very good position. I make it a good opportunity to strengthen our position in the League. That is how I see it. We have a good level of confidence and know that with so many big games, psychologically it is important to go in with a high level of confidence, so every result has an influence on the next one.

The psychological part is indeed very important. A good result here can set us up nicely for the big clash at the weekend. For all we know, United might be coming into that one on the back of a demoralizing loss in the Carling Cup.

Anyway, as all the wise men say, right now the focus should be on the game at hand. We have some players returning from injury and should be able to put out a strong side for this one. The first choice defense should be restored and the return of Ramsey will give us a strong midfield. Rosicky, Eduardo and Arshavin should make a good front three once again.

We might have a really strong bench now that Bendtner and Narsi will be available along with Theo, Vela, Campbell and Traore. This also gives us the opportunity to mix things up as the great Dane, almost literally, offers a different dimension and so does Walcott.

To me, this game is simple in terms of tactics – We have to break down a resolute defense while being strong enough to prevent counter attacks and be solid on the set pieces. I thought our home game was brilliant defensively and there is no reason we shouldn’t see a repeat performance given that some key players have had a good rest.

Wenger has to make sure that we don’t pay the price for Rambo’s inexperience or Denilson’s weakness in the defensive half. Both these players have to come out with a focus on their defensive duties and leave the creative part of the game to the likes of Cesc, Rosicky and Arshavin.

It will be interesting to see which team starts off at a higher tempo. If we can control the tempo from the start it will help us negate the crowd and affect the hosts’ confidence. Allowing Villa to dominate the early play can put us under pressure, especially if they manage to score.

Baring any late injury concerns the starting line up is quite likely to be,

Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Ramsey, Cesc, Denilson; Rosicky, Eduardo, Arshavin;

I am gunning for a 2-1 win (hopefully, this won’t be a repeat of my prediction against Stoke) with Cesc and Arshavin to score. And yes, it’s very difficult for me to imagine Arsenal keeping a clean sheet. Believe me, I am trying hard but it’s just not working for me right now.