Arsenal-Aston Villa Match Preview
Aston Villa at home. Gooners would like to think that this is a guaranteed win, a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a good chance to start the post January, business end of the season after some good work (a defender, finally…) in the transfer window. If the win is in sufficient style and by substantial margin it might be enough–even if the big money player (but still a bargain, of course…this is Arsenal, after all…) doesn’t come in at the deadline.
Gooners, however, might also remember that it’s not always so simple. No matter how much ale has been consumed in the intervening year and a half, August 17, 2013 will always be a day that lives in infamy. Opening day: an early goal from Olivier Giroud, and all looked fun and games. But then collapse and a match that finished 1-3. The margins were tighter than that, of course, and much of the blame might be placed on the (very) bald head of referee Anthony Taylor. Taylor allowed a very rough match (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered ligament damage on a play that was deemed completely fair) but still called questionable penalties on Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny, the 2nd coming with a yellow card for our defender. Moments later Taylor gave Kos a 2nd yellow, reducing Arsenal to 10 men. The team fought hard despite the disadvantage, but, finally, to dash all hopes, a goal on the counter by Antonio Luna sealed our fate.
The parallels are striking. Somehow Taylor has been assigned the fixture again. The transfer window is still open. We are, however, a season and a half on. Have things changed or will history repeat itself?
I don’t believe it will, but who am I? This is a new match and Arsenal and Aston Villa come into it very differently than they did in that one.
Arsenal. This match feels very different. Instead of only pre-season matches, Arsenal come into this one on a run of four victories in all competitions. Additionally, important players are coming back from long term injuries and significant transfer business, in the purchase of Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista, has been completed. There is talk that Alexis Sanchez, by far our most important player this season, is suffering from a tight hamstring and will not be risked. My guess is that this is Arsene Wenger talk for “Winter Break.” My other guess is that (irrepressible) Alexis will still get a spot on the bench and a run out if a late goal is needed. More on the starting team below.
Aston Villa. Aston Villa are a proud club, by far the biggest of the Birmingham based outfits. They have suffered from lack of investment from their American owner (does this sound familiar?…) but they are a well run organisation, and their manager Paul Lambert knows how to play the opponent at hand. Their home form in recent seasons has suffered, perhaps because supporters cannot get truly excited by the fact that Villa are (at best) a solid mid-table club and their best players are constantly linked with moves away from the club. They can, however, be a very dangerous group in front of their more hard core, traveling fans. They will play with nothing to lose and will be emboldened by their positive result last time they came to play Arsenal.
Villa have players who can hurt and frustrate. Up front, Christian Benteke has surmounted injury problems and always represents a threat with his size and power. Buzzing around him are Andreas Weimann and Fabian Delph. Charles N’Zogbia is a very talented player and Leandro Bacuna can curl in as mean a free kick as anybody in the league. Scott Sinclair, a former Arsenal trainee, has joined Villa on loan from Manchester City; the extra motivation of finally getting a match (and playing against the club which let him go) might be something Lambert chooses to try.
At the back, diminutive American keeper Brad Guzan plays much bigger than his stature. Former Arsenal defender Phillipe Senderos and Dutchman Ron Vlaar both are injury doubts, but ill-tempered former Spur Alan Hutton and Keiran Clark are big guys who can also help protect the small keeper. Their size plus good organisation in front of the backline–in the form of Colombian Carlos Sanchez and Man United loanee, Tom Cleverly–means they can be dangerous in transition and can frustrate through possession. As we saw last time out, with their final goal, (actually with all of them–the two pens were on Villa breaks) they can punish teams playing on the counter. We cannot give them an easy early goal and we must be extra vigilant to try and avoid corners and set-pieces where strong delivery and (even stronger) Benteke represent their biggest threat.
Still, Villa are not as full of confidence as they could be. They will take heart, at least in terms of their relegation battle (they sit just 2 points above the bottom 3 with 15 matches to play), that they beat Championship leaders Bournemouth in the FA Cup last weekend. Still, it’s been over a month since they’ve won in their own league and they are coming off a stretch of 5 league matches without a goal. Arsenal-away, given the success they’ve had at our stadium and the fact that our defence is far from settled, could be a place where that streak ends, especially if they can lure us forward and spring on the counterattack. Nonetheless, it’s also a match where Lambert may be satisfied with a good performance and a tight result.
By contrast, Arsenal want both result and performance. It’s time to build on the win at Manchester City (which will mean little if full points are not taken here) and work in back-from-injury stalwarts Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott, who both scored in the FA cup win at Brighton. Aaron Ramsey, it should be noted, is also just two weeks back from a lengthy period out. With Alexis injured or at least, “not risked,” and Oxlade-Chamberlain nursing a groin problem, room opens up for all three. Additionally, with Koscielny unable to play a full schedule due to sore Achilles tendons (and Mertesacker rested in our FA Cup victory at Brighton), new signing Gabriel may be handed a debut start. Nacho Monreal, having played very well at Man City, including winning the penalty for the decisive goal, I think, gets his spot back at LB from Kieran Gibbs. Likewise on the right, fellow Spaniard, Hector Bellerin, comes back in at the expense of Calum Chambers. David Ospina, I think, retains his spot in goal on the strength of three consecutive clean sheets.
So, there’s your line-up and there’s your preview. Stepping stone or stumbling block?
We know Villa will see only opportunity on their visit and must be taken seriously. We also know that things feel better for Arsenal. Still, the game must be played and feelings–as we saw the last time we hosted this team–can change quickly. Let’s do it.