Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Aston Villa preview: Make changes? Do better

We’re back in the saddle pretty quickly after Monday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, facing Aston Villa in a Friday night game that could make or break your entire weekend.

In terms of the team news, Bukayo Saka had yet to train when Mikel Arteta met the press yesterday morning, and although he was due to be assessed, it seems quite doubtful that he’ll be fit enough to start. You never know, but when you get a kick like that, chances are you’re not going to be ready for the intensity of a Premier League game so quickly. However, he was in the training pics, and we know how much the manager loves to start him, so it’s not impossible.

If he doesn’t make it because we decide to be cautious, you assume Nicolas Pepe will continue from the right hand side, but there are a couple of other decisions for Mikel Arteta to make. First, does he keep the same shape/formation as the Palace game. As he said at his presser:

If we play 4-3-3 the way we played the first 20 minutes, we win the games.

Of course, the issue on Monday was that we only did it for 20 minutes, so does he trust that set-up to do better this time? I’m not sure. I suspect we might see a couple of changes. I think Thomas Partey needs someone to shoulder some of the burden in midfield, and the obvious candidate is Albert Sambi Lokonga. The question about how exactly he’d be instructed to play is an interesting one – James wrote a good piece about midfield for The Athletic yesterday (£) – but an extra body in that area of the pitch would perhaps give us more control. At times, Partey was isolated, his escape routes cut off by Palace pressure, but also because he didn’t have anyone close enough to him to work his way around them.

I also wonder if Alexandre Lacazette’s cameo might see him handed a start. As I said yesterday, it feels a little retrograde going back to something we’ve done many times before – often unsuccessfully – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that a still relatively inexperienced manager seeking solutions is heavily influenced by recency. Stick in a good performance and make an impact, and you’re front and centre in Arteta’s mind. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but selecting Lacazette means one of two things.

First, you keep Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard in the team, and drop your captain. Or you drop one of them and play Aubameyang out on that left hand side where I think, over time, we’ve seen him become less effective. That’s not simply on him, by the way, the way we play has key part in that. I suppose there is another option in that you play with a front two, but that doesn’t seem that likely to me, given it’s not something he’s ever done before and it would probably mean switching to a back three and a 352 rather than a 442.

I suppose it’s just a microcosm of this Arsenal. It’s hard to know what we’re going to do, it’s hard to know how we’re going to play, it’s almost impossible to predict anything with any consistency other than there is likely to be inconsistency. Not just from week to week and game to game, but within the 90 minutes themselves.

I hope we’ll be better than Monday, but I don’t expect 90 minutes of brilliance or anything like that. I hope that some of the more worrying aspects of that performance against Palace will be addressed though. Out of possession we have to work harder and be more aggressive to try and win the ball back; in possession, let’s be more secure. I thought this was a startling stat from Scott in his By The Numbers piece on Monday’s game:

In a 30+ minute period, Arsenal had just 9 possession sequences where they were able to string together 3 or more passes and just 3 where they were able to string together 5 or more. For contrast in the opening 15 minutes of the match, Arsenal was able to have 9 sequences where they completed 5 or more passes in a row.

I find that staggering. For a manager who grew up at Barcelona, who played under Arsene Wenger as a linchpin of his possession based team, who worked under Pep Guardiola who uses possession and relentless passing as a way of wearing down the opposition before making the incisions for the inevitable goals, for us to be so poor at this aspect of the game is a huge concern. It’s not as if these players are so technically inept they can’t do it either.

The other very obvious thing to say is that when you have security in possession, and can couple that with a willingness/ability to win it back better, you have more opportunities to try and create chances and score goals. That is somewhat simplistic/reductive, but so too is the manager suggesting the dreaded ‘handbrake’ went on after our opening goal on Monday evening. He still had plenty of time to take it off again, and there was no real explanation as to why it happened in the first place. It’s buzzword deflection without any substance. A zero tolerance handbrake policy should be in place tonight unless we get to 4-0 up at which point, I won’t care what kind of brake we use.

So, let’s hope for better tonight. Villa are a tough outfit as we know from recent experience, so you can’t take anything for granted. However, we’re at home again, and having dropped points against a team we should be expected to beat earlier in the week, these three points have become even more important.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. As ever we’ll have live blog coverage of the game for you later this evening, plus all the usual stuff on Arseblog News. There’s also a brand new Arsecast for you to get your ears around, trying to solve all the problems of the (Arsenal) world with Andrew Allen and Ryan Hunn. Listen/subscribe below.

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