And here we are at another match day folks. It’s a late kick off, a disgusting ‘pay-per-view’ kick off, with a return of a former player we all know and love in the shape of Emi Martinez, as we line up against Aston Villa at The Emirates tonight.
We all know Emi is having the game of his life tonight, right? I mean, that’s a given, isn’t it?
But that aside, this feels like it’s going to be a pretty tough one this evening I reckon, because Villa have picked up a few impressive wins this season. The thumping of Liverpool stands out but they also got a very impressive 1-0 win away to Leicester City and I’m sure Dean Smith will be looking at that as the blueprint for how they get something against us tonight.
They have pace and they have the ability to quickly transition from back to front with players like Grealish and Barkley and in Watkins they’ll use him as a guy who could spring the counter if he plays off the shoulder of the last defender of ours. It’s why I hope Arteta is prepared and we don’t see what happened to us against Leicester with a gaping hole defensively as we commit too many bodies forward.
But I do sympathise with Arteta, because whilst he won’t want to get sucker-punched on the counter, he will want to see more from us attacking-wise. Everyone knows we don’t creat enough chances. Everyone knows we find it difficult to break down a ‘low block’. And everyone knows that we can be frustrated if teams remain in their shape and sit deep. Which is what I think we’ll get today and so much like the Sheffield United game, we could be in for a difficult watch for large parts of this match I reckon.
Aston Villa will look to make the most of the left hand side of our pitch, which is why I suspect Nicolas Pepe won’t be given the chance to start from the beginning. Willian’s form has been average at best and he wasn’t great against Molde, but Arteta does prefer what he offers to Pepe and in a game in which Villa will look to counter on that left hand side with Grealish, I suspect Willian will get the nod and Bellerin will also be charged with defensive duties.
But he’ll also need to get forward too and his form of late is such that we should be looking at that side as an option for us to get in behind. Bellerin is one of our top chance creators at the moment and so I’m hoping for more of the same from him by getting forward and over/under lapping whoever plays on the right hand flank.
On the other side of the pitch I think it’ll be Tierney, but hopefully he’ll also have Saka drifting over with Aubameyang playing centrally. That’s what we saw against United and whilst Saka didn’t have the best of games, Aubameyang was good and found decent positions to score in Manchester. We need to see that again tonight. I think we will. But I don’t think Arteta will change the side much from the team that played last weekend. I suspect it’ll be Leno in goal, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel and Tierney at the back, Partey and Elneny in the middle of the park with Saka playing in that three too, albeit with the ability to drift out to that left hand side. Up front I think we’ll continue to see the out of form Lacazette and I do think it’ll be Willian on the right.
It’s not exactly the team I would choose but having got the hump with the starting line up last weekend, I’ll not be making the same mistake and moaning an hour before kick off today, because last week the team looked like it might be on for a hiding and the players put in a blinder to get our first away win in 14 years at Old Trafford. personally I’d go with Luiz and Gabriel today at the back. Gabriel has been our best defender this season and Luiz’s passing range gives us something different. I also think he’s more mobile than Holding and when you’re up against a team who will want to draw you in and hit you on the counter, that’s a serious consideration you need to have. We’re going to have most of the ball too and so we need players who can spot a pass. That is definitely Luiz more than Holding.
I’d also say Xhaka instead of Elneny too under normal circumstances, but the Egyptian was so good against United and he also took more risks in his forward and progressive passing, so if we got the same from him this evening I’d be happy to say he should start. But if we get more of the old Elneny then I’d prefer somebody better on the ball like Xhaka. But after his form of late you can’t drop Elneny from the side so I’ll be ok with him starting.
In front of them I think Saka offers us a little bit of creativity and so I’d definitely pick him, but I’d possibly think about him on the left, Auba through the middle and Willian on the right, with Pepe playing behind them. I know we haven’t see that before, but Pepe is doing damage when he appears centrally on the pitch and the more and more it has been talked about this week, the more and more it feels obvious. A front three of Saka, Aubameyang and Willian with Pepe able to roam behind makes me think we could get the most from the Ivorian, but given Willock’s performances I’d also be happy to see Pepe on the right and Willock given a chance to impress in the hole behind.
We do need to get somebody occupying the spaces between the oppposition defence and midfield though. Whoever it is, that is how we pull apart teams and that is how we win tonight, I think.
As ever though, it feels impossible to predict in this crazy season, so we just have to cross everything and hope Arteta gets it right.
Back tomorrow with a match review.