Gunners Mustn’t let their Garde down in the Midlands.
Every Arsenal match presents difficulties but Sunday’s noontime confrontation at Aston Villa offers more than usual. With Villa sitting bottom of the table on just 6 points it doesn’t seem like such a tough one but there are complicating circumstances.
The biggest will be the emotional and physical fatigue caused by Arsenal’s great escape in their Champions League group. Traveling to Athens and getting the multiple goals needed to finish second in the group was a very satisfying accomplishment. Aston Villa’s previous match, a 1-1 draw at Southampton, was played opposite Arsenal’s 3-1 home win vs Sunderland. That match was draining enough! To think that we went to Greece and did the job–with our injury ravaged squad–while our opponents rested and prepared should have Gooners concerned.
Add in the presence of Villa’s new manager and former Arsenal player, Remy Garde, and there has to be a worry that the manager who brought him to England, our own Arsene Wenger, might have just a bit of a soft spot for his disciple. Garde, while still searching for his first victory with his new team, definitely has them playing better. The point gained a week ago on the South Coast shows this, as does the one they picked up at home vs Manchester City in Garde’s first match after Tim Sherwood’s sacking.
Despite the injuries and fatigue with which Arsenal are battling, Villa’s troubles are even worse. The woeful record they’ve compiled since winning their league opener (11 losses and 3 draws) is largely a result of losing their two best players in the transfer window. Christian Benteke left for Liverpool while Fabian Delph is now plying his trade at Manchester City. Rudy Gestede and Carles Gil looked promising replacements and have had some good moments. Disappointing results, however, often exacerbated by an all-out attacking style, were not sufficient to keep Sherwood in the managerial position.
Garde has an additional headache with the off-field antics of promising youngster Jack Grealish, whom Garde felt compelled to suspend for three matches after a photo showed him partying immediately after Villa’s 4-nil loss to Everton. He’ll be back in the squad for this match and perhaps keen to show that football–not drinking–is his first priority. It will take some doing after the famous shot of him passed-out drunk on the sidewalk over the summer in the Canary Islands.
With all these issues plaguing the Villans many Gooners might be tempted to count the points ahead of the match. After all, in this fixture last season, Arsenal won 3-nil on the strength of first half goals from Mesut Ozil, Danny Welbeck and an own goal from Aly Cissokho. We also beat them 5-nil at home, and, of course, 4-nil in the FA Cup final at Wembley.
Wenger will not want such overconfidence to creep into our mind-set and will have to figure a way to get his team fully focused after the long trip and massive output in Greece. Will he use a largely unchanged team or will he attempt to rest and rotate after the exertions of his squad?
In almost every position there could be an argument that our players might be jaded or in the dreaded “red zone.” We’ve avoided further injuries in the last two matches but how long can our players give their very best? We will have a full week off before the home match vs Manchester City but then the matches come thick and fast with the hectic Festive Season schedule.
Will Wenger opt for hat-trick hero Olivier Giroud up top or will Theo Walcott, who started alongside Giroud in Greece, be given a chance? Joel Campbell has a goal and an assist in the two matches this week; does he get another run-out, or could Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, subject of much debate here on Bergkampesque (see previous post), get the call? Kieran Gibbs got a start on the left side of attack the last time we traveled to the Birmingham area but that one ended in a disappointing 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.
Central midfield seems much surer. Mesut Ozil remains the creative heart of our play in the #10 position. The injuries to Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin mean Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini complete the central group. Many worry about Flamini’s ability to remain fit when the games come so quickly and Gooners have proposed all sorts of solutions including January purchases. Until then, however, Calum Chambers seems to be the player being groomed as the possible fill-in. Might this be his chance?
The rear-guard seems even more settled but some have noted that right-back Hector Bellerin has had some struggles since his return from injury. Mathieu Debuchy has been making news off the pitch suggesting he’s open to a January move away from the team to improve his chances of representing the host nation, France, in this summer’s European Championships. Could Wenger be moved to replace the one with the other?
For me, there are a lot of questions and I feel quite a bit less confident in my prediction than usual. As such, I think I’ll stump for the main group giving it another go, the only change from the Olympiakos match being Theo dropped to the bench in favour of the Ox (which, in fact, would be the exact line-up which started vs Sunderland.)
Subs: Ospina, Debuchy, Gabriel, Gibbs, Chambers, Iwobi, Walcott
What do you guys think? Is this as tough as fixture as I think it is given the relative travels and exertions of the competing teams or should we be confident given our domination over the Villans and their extreme struggles this season? Who would you play and how do you think this one will play out?
We’ve done well to right the ship in the league with the three points vs Sunderland and to climb the mountain and plant our flag in the Champions League draw with the big win in Athens. To me, however, dropping points against bottom-of-the-table Villa would be a step backwards ahead of the busy end of the year calendar.
What say you, fellow Kampers?
Go on then…