Arsenal take on Aston Villa this evening, in a game which is filled with ‘narrative’.
There’s the Unai Emery connection, of course, and the fact two Basque managers will face off, albeit from a distance today. Mikel Arteta will be watching the game from the stands as he’s been suspended for being happy, and I thought his comments about consistency of the rules being applied were spot on. Villa are in great form, having just beaten Man City in midweek, a result which puts them into the top three as the Premier League table stands. And they have won 14 games in a row at home, a record which stretches back to February of this year – the last game they lost there was against us when Jorginho’s thumper clattered in off the back of Emi Martinez’s head, before the former Arsenal keeper went on a hilarious walkabout to allow us to score a fourth to make sure of the points. There’s a lot going on.
The key factor for me is how how good Villa are this season, and when you play like that against Man City, you’re very clearly a side full of belief and confidence. That is something we’re going to have to contend with, but we do so from a position of strength ourselves. Sure, Luton wasn’t our best performance of the season. In truth, it was quite anomalous to what we’ve seen throughout this campaign – cup tie vibes and mayhem. That’s not what Arsenal are about, and I’m sure work on the training ground this week has been about ensuring as little of that as possible happens again today.
Arteta said of their midweek performance:
Tactically they are really well set up, they do two or three different things, they are really brave to play from the back. They really attack you because they have players between the lines that they can really hurt you; they have players in open spaces that are constantly threatening you. But not only that, the spirit that they have created, the atmosphere, the intensity, and the belief that they have at the moment that they can go on and beat anybody.
In terms of today’s team, I don’t know that there’s much the manager can do. This one felt like it would be a Takehiro Tomiyasu at left-back game, but in his absence, every game is now an Oleksandr Zinchenko game – unless Arteta decides that Jakub Kiwior is a Tomiyasu analog for these kinds of fixtures. I’d be surprised, but he must have given some pre-game thought to the threat Villa possess down their right-hand side, and how they might try and exploit that if they can win the ball while Zinchenko is still in the central areas he drifts into.
Keeping possession, and security in possession might be key there, but a team selection which allows Declan Rice to play a little more on the left could be another option. I’m not necessarily sure I’d fancy Jorginho’s legs against Villa’s strong running midfield, but if it’s technical security we’re looking for, it’s a potential option. That would mean losing something further forward though, and my gut feeling is he’ll go with the midfield trio that played on Tuesday.
The front three picks itself, injury aside. Hopefully Gabriel Martinelli isn’t too sore after the whack he took against Luton, he didn’t seem to move with his usual fluency afterwards, but fingers crossed he’s ok. As we discussed in the preview podcast over on Patreon, Villa have a strong focus on a very effective offside trap, and while it might not be the wingers we try and get in behind, overlaps from the full-backs might well be a way of finding space. It’s been interesting in recent weeks to see Zinchenko perform that traditional aspect of the full-back role much more often. Whether that’s by design or just a quirk of the fixtures we’ve played, I’m not sure, but it’s something to keep an eye on today.
So, it’s gonna be tough, we all understand that. Whether the manager being in the stands has a material impact on the performance, it’s hard to say. Albert Stuivenberg will be ‘in charge’ on the sideline, but you can be sure lines of communication with Arteta – even if they have to do it in roundabout way – will be wide open. And while Villa are good, no question, they’ve been beaten by Newcastle (5-1), Liverpool (3-0) and even Everton (2-1), allowing a total of 47 shots on their goal in those three games. That lot down the road had three goals ruled out for offside as they were beaten, so there are vulnerabilities there if we can play well enough to expose them. Fingers crossed.
Catch you later.