It’s match day people! How we feeling? Excited? Nervous? Terrified?
I must admit to you that I have a nervous excitement about today. The Wolves game may have repeated on me like a bit of dodgy cucumber, but that first half felt good, like it could be the start of something. New beginnings and all that jazz. But what is most important today is that the performance is matched by the result and that both are good from an Arsenal point of view because a poor performance and bad result today and our optimism will once again drop a tad despite the good form we’ve been in since Christmas.
Remember when we went to the Etihad all those years ago and bossed it, winning 2-0 with Cazorla and Coquelin in the middle of the park? That day was a defensive masterclass under a Wenger side and we thought he’d finally found himself a blueprint to beat the bigger teams, something Arsene struggled with away from home in the latter stages of his Arsenal managerial career. But it turned out to be an outlier; an isolated incident that he never truly repeated. One data point in time proves nothing and that applies to the Wolves first half. If this Arsenal team want to truly ‘kick on’ then we need to see another impressive display today.
It won’t be the same against Villa though. They are in better form than Wolves – even though they lost at home to West Ham in midweek – and they have better players that can hurt us. Wolves’ talisman is Traore and his output is nowhere near the levels of Grealish, so we should be very aware of that fact and I hope Arteta has a plan for him today. I’m not sure how you go about working out what that plan is with a player that floats around the pitch into different positions, but hopefully he has something in mind, because if we give him the freedom of Villa Park we aren’t picking up points today.
Grealish isn’t the only danger man though, so focusing on him alone would be done on our peril, as they have Barkley who has also sparked in to live at Aston Villa and Ollie Watkins who showed us that he can deliver in front of goal. Watkins has 11 goals in 23 games and looks on course for a 20+ season. Two of those 11 were against us in the last 20 minutes of the game and gave us the score line hammering that was part of our barren run and I remember one of the Villa players talking after the game at how they’d analysed where and when Arsenal over-commit and set the trap with perfect execution. I think they try to play the same game today this lunchtime if I’m honest, which means they’ll look to hit us from back to front very quickly on the counter. That might suit them. West Ham set up to nullify Grealish and ask Vila to come on to them. I am not sure Arteta will do that. Villa have lost four of their last six games in the Premier League and their form is patchy, but this one feels like it could easily be one of those where we have a lot of possession and not too many chances. That’s why we need to see us be more clinical than we were against Wolves. Unlucky with a VAR disallowed goal, a couple of woodwork attempts, all contributed towards a good performance but if those fine margins go the wrong way for us today then I fear a sucker punch. In the game in November the match stats were pretty even, but we had 60% possession, which tells you how Villa might set up and also tells you we need to make more of the ball when we have it.
The good news is that Mat Ryan appears to have overcome injury and may well start today having had two full days of training. There was part of me this morning feeling a little sorry for Runarsson, because if Ryan does start you wonder whether he’ll get many – if any – game time any more. But he’s done something millions would love to in just playing one game for The Arsenal and he’s probably earned more in a year than I would earn in 10 years, so that helps to temper my sorrow for him. We need a guy who doesn’t terrify us at the back and whilst Ryan may not be amazing, he’s at least Premier League ready, so I just hope he doesn’t bugger anything up today if he plays.
As for the rest of the Arsenal team, I suspect it’ll be fairly easy to pick the back line with Luiz suspended, so it’ll be Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Cedric at the back. We’re all worried about the Tierney situation but hopefully Cedric can continue his decent run of form today.
In midfield it is hard to look beyond Partey and Xhaka and with Arteta praising the pair and their growing relationship in the middle of the park, I think both start this lunchtime.
In the four attacking spots there are some decisions to make. I don’t think they need to be made in the wide forward spots and surely Pepe and Saka on left and right respectively is the best option for us, but who plays behind as the connector will be interesting, as well as who plays as the main striker. I have a weird feeling it might be Odegaard today. Smith-Rowe has done nothing wrong but we’ve all talked about the minutes being shared and given we played on Tuesday I think Arteta might be tempted to rotate there. We have to feed him in at some stage and this feels like a decent enough opportunity to do it. After today’s game we have a week off until we play Leeds at home and then we can recall Smith-Rowe without any worry of potential fatigue leading to injury.
Then we’ve got the forward position and whilst Lacazette has been in form of late, I do wonder if Arteta is tempted to bring back Aubameyang in that central role. It’s a really tough call because Auba is a talisman but Laca has delivered in most of the games during our uptick in form, so I would be a silly man if I was to place a bet on who would start. For me I prefer Auba as that central striker but I’d be fine if it was Lacazette.
But we have options from the bench. One of Smith-Rowe or Odegaard will be one to change it in the second half, as is one of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Having any of those on the bench is fine by me and at least gives Arteta the chance to roll the dice if things aren’t working in the second half.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that though. Would be great to see us get a win and make a statement of intent. I’d settle for any kind of victory though.
catch you all tomorrow for some post match thoughts.