Arsenal travel to in form Aston Villa via a difficult midweek in the Champions League where, quite frankly, a 2-0 defeat flattered them in Dortmund. Villa meanwhile, are 2nd in the table and fresh from a 1-0 win at Anfield.
At the beginning of the season, you might have expected the teams to journey into this game in different moods, but you perhaps wouldn’t have guessed that it would be Arsenal’s confidence that would be in question.
Many questions have been asked of Arsenal’s slight alteration in shape this season, and I wrote a little bit about that here http://arseblog.com/2014/09/ozil-ramsey-and-the-system/. Critics are always quick to surface at a club like Arsenal and a win would go some way to silencing the echo chamber of doubt following a patchy start to the season.
Villa meanwhile have awarded manager Paul Lambert and longest serving player Gabriel Agbonlahor new contracts in the past fortnight and Villa Park seems to be in danger of creating something close to a buzz.
An interesting (terrifying) thought going into this match is that Arsenal have conceded from the first shot on target against them four times this season and Villa have scored with their first shot three times. One to watch out for there.
Villa will have had a decent pre screening in how to capitalise on Arsenal’s unfamiliarity with their own system at the moment with Dortmund’s masterclass of counter pressing.
The new system seems to expose the lack of mobility in Arteta and Mertesacker and Villa are a team that can break quickly. It seems certain Paul Lambert will pinpoint that as Arsenal’s principal weakness. It’s a fascinating match up and you feel Villa have nothing to lose, though they’ve Manchester City and Chelsea on the horizon in the coming weeks.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger launched an impassioned defence of record signing Mesut Ozil after a lacklustre display in Germany.
‘The criticism is unfair because it’s post-World Cup,” said Wenger. “It takes a few months for them to get back to their best.
“Fans need to be patient. You want your best players in every game but you have to be united and go through hard periods.
“Why should Özil be a scapegoat? We’ve lost one game since 1 April [in the Premier League]. We had very difficult games against teams like Besiktas.
“Everybody judges players on one game but football is played with many ups and downs.”
Meanwhile, Villa boss Paul Lambert is expecting a tough examination of his side’s credentials when Arsenal visit on Saturday afternoon.
‘”Nobody should be under-estimating Arsenal. They are a right good side themselves,” he said.
“They will be round about it in the Premier League this season.
“They came up against a team who were fantastic on the night.
“It`s a tough place to go and try to win a game.
“That said, we will go into it full of confidence.”
Lambert added: “I was over in Dortmund on Tuesday night.
“It`s been well documented how well Dortmund did but I thought they did even better than that. They were exceptional.
“It`s a really tough stadium to go and get a win there.
“You go and play against that crowd and it`s a really, really tough place to go to.
“They were fantastic, Dortmund. But it`s not every week that you`re up against teams of that quality who have been in a European Cup Final recently.
‘You`re only as good as any team you go up against.
“Dortmund had a lot of players out but on the night they were exceptional.
“The atmosphere was great. I know from first-hand what that crowd does to you from playing there.
“The better team won on that night.”
Aston Villa Team News:
Captain Ron Vlaar is a doubt for Villa with a calf injury that kept him out of last weekend’s win at Liverpool. Nathan Baker stands by.
Christian Benteke has returned to training after a ruptured achilles, however, he is not fit enough to be considered. Libor Kazak continues his recovery from a broken leg, but Joe Cole has shaken off a calf problem and could feature.
Aston Villa (from): Guzan, Baker, Vlaar, Okore, Clark, Bacuna, Cleverley, Weimann, Agbonlahor, Cole, Senderos, Westwood, Delph, Herd, Richardson, Bent, Hutton, Cissohko, Sanchez, N’Zogbia, Given, Lowton.
Player to watch: Gabriel Agbonlahor
With Arsenal favouring a slightly more front footed approach this season, the lack of mobility in both Arteta and Mertesacker is slightly more noticeable (though Koscielny was beaten easily enough by the aptly named Immobile on Tuesday) and you feel Arsenal are a bit more susceptible to pace on the break.
One of Villa’s biggest strengths is their pace on the break and that’s where the velocity of Agbonlahor comes into play. He’s in good form too and you feel Lambert’s gameplan will centre around his homegrown forward.
Arsenal Team News:
Jack Wilshere is fit after a slight concern over a kick to his ankle on Tuesday night, however, Nacho Monreal is still out with a back complaint.
Mathieu Debuchy (ankle), Olivier Giroud (ankle), Theo Walcott (knee), Yaya Sanogo (hamstring) and Serge Gnabry (knee) are out, but Calum Chambers returns from tonsilitis.
Arsenal (from): Szczesny, Gibbs, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Rosicky, Arteta (c), Podolski, Wilshere, Ozil, Ospina, Chamberlain, Ramsey, Alexis, S.Cazorla, Flamini, Chambers, Welbeck, Bellerin.
Player to watch: Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere
Much of the focus has been on Mesut Ozil, but I think the real kink in Arsenal’s system at the moment lies in trying to get the best out of Wilshere and Ramsey simultaneously.
We have a kind of ‘whack a mole’ situation where bringing the best out of one leads to mediocroty in the other. Both have the ability to attack and defend and both like to attack from deep, but they haven’t worked out a way to harmonise yet, offensively or defensively.
They like to start from the same positions and at the moment, they seem to be getting in each other’s way. It remains to be seen whether that can be ironed out or whether the pair become Arsenal’s answer to the Lampard / Gerrard axis.
Match Facts & Stats
Philippe Senderos faces his old club.
Arsenal have been unbeaten in their last 15 visits to Villa Park, winning 7 and drawing 8. They last lost there in December 1998.
Villa have had only 6 shots on target this season but have gained 10 points.
Darren Bent has 8 goals in his last 11 appearances against Arsenal.
The referee will be Mike Jones.
It’s a question, I think, of whether or not Arsenal click. If they do, I think they’ll win. If they don’t, Villa have the qualities to hit their weak spots.
I’m going to cautiously plump for a nervy 2-1 win for Arsenal, with Alexis and Welbeck socring for Arsenal and Weimann for Villa.
Arsenal play at home to Southampton in the Capital One Cup on uesday evening at 7.45pm. Aston Villa are away at Chelsea at 3pm next Saturday.