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Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal-Villa: Pre-match review, lineups, and predictions

Arsenal square off with Aston Villa with 3 major points on the line.

Arsenal have drawn the short straw once more and are stuck with the late-Sunday match. Maybe it’s not the worst fixture seeing as Arsenal had a Thursday match with Molde in the Europa League, but as a self-centered fan it’s not my favorite time slot.

Winning in this match would be a fantastic way for Arsenal to head into the international break. Yes, that’s right another international break… *eye roll at how quickly a second one is upon us*. “Obviously before the international break if you are able to win, the mood in the camp and everybody is much better,” said Arteta in his press conference. “You will reflect as well on your position in the table because there are other important games coming up.”

Arteta’s right. It’s early in the season but 3 points tomorrow would put Arsenal at 15 points, 1 point off the current leader Southampton. Even if Liverpool or Leicester City manage to win and extend that top to 18 points, this puts Arsenal very much in the hunt. Winning all three points may be easier said than done.

When the whistle blows, Arsenal will go at it with Aston Villa, a match that got a small tick on the calendar early on when Arsenal sold backup keeper Emi Martinez to the Villans for around £20m. The fixture got a few more checks when Aston Villa came out of the gates with a fine bit of form. They won their first 4 matches all competitions, dominated Liverpool 7-2, beat Leicester 1-0, and have a 6-0-3 record to in their opening 9 matches. Only in their last two, have cracks in their side begun to form.

Losing big to Leeds United and relatively large to Southampton before Villa made a very late surge scoring 2 in extra time, which makes Villa vulnerable and just a bit dangerous. They are also looking to claim 3 points and put themselves in the race at the top of the table. With 2 matches in hand, the Lions have the opportunity to send a real message to the league. In some respects, they already have.

 Arsenal may have a very impressive head-to-head record against Aston Villa (12W-1D-3L), but I have a hard time believing the match will be an easy one, even if it is at the Emirates. “It is a really competitive side,” said Arteta on Villa’s form. “They have played some very different matches with different approaches to certain matches, having some big results against big teams and after two defeats they need a win as well and they will show that right from the start I think.”

In the offseason, a few major moves were completed by Villa and it’s paying dividends early. Every Arsenal fan will be well aware of what Emi Martinez is capable of, but they have also added Matty Cash to their backline, Bertrand Traore, Ollie Watkins who has 4 goals including 3 against Liverpool. Seeking talent at a fair price from the Championship, Aston Villa seem to have found some success at it. To bring it all together, they made the loan move for Ross Barkley which may prove to be their biggest move yet. Coupling his power, pace, and attacking mindset with the graceful, strong, tricky creativity of Jack Grealish and the two form a very complimentary and formidable duo.

“He is a top player, great talent, he is player who can make a difference at any moment in the game” said Arteta about Grealish. “He has this personality against any opponent, at any ground, to take the ball in any area of the pitch and he can make the difference, so we have to look after him.” It’s a task that is easier said than done, and one that will be a full-time job for Arsenals midfield and backline. Grealish already has 4 goals and 4 assists on the season himself in the Premier League and will certainly want to add to that tremendous start.

Arsenal midfield has, understandably, been a hot topic lately. Arsenal are in need of a solution to not only their attacking troubles, but their progression troubles, creativity issues, and end product. The arrival of Partey has helped immensely and the level of competition within the side is higher than it has been in years. Suddenly, Arsenal have the like of Xhaka, Ceballos, Partey, Elneny, and Joe Willock vying for time in a congested midfield. Willock has put himself front and center after two very impressive Europa League performances that demonstrated an ability to offer Arsenal something no one else is proving capable of.

Willock’s ability to play between the lines, combine in tight spaces, follow through with his run and look to get in behind has been a sight for sore eyes. Not only is he showing these traits, they are leading to goals and shots – an aspect missing entirely from Arsenal’s midfield last season.

The question now, is who does Arteta look toward and what formation after a brilliant result at Old Trafford added to the complications. Whichever side he selects, revenge for last year’s late season, 1-0 loss will be a sweet, sweet result.

Lineup

When it comes to the lineup Arteta selects, I find myself asking two major questions.

3-4-3 or 4-3-3?

Who makes up the midfield?

Arsenal put on a solid performance against Manchester United from their 3-4-3 formation, but it certainly didn’t yield a plethora of shots. Enough for them to win that game and win others if they manage to convert their opportunities, but they haven’t shown the ability to produce an abundance of scoring opportunities.

Against Molde we saw an Arsenal side opt for more of a 4-3-3 and create 17 shots, 17 chances, 5 big chances, and 4 goals. Villa will present more of a challenge for us to break down and a higher level of opposition, but there was some clear progress being displayed in the way Arsenal attacked the game. Bringing some of that to the Emirates tomorrow would be a welcome sight.

I believe Arteta would be hard pressed to find a reason for splitting up the pairing of Elneny and Partey after their splendid day against Manchester. The way they balanced one another across the midfield, shielded the defense while aiding in the press, and found pockets of space to offer progression was fantastic. Without using the “handbrake” analogy, it’s seemed as though Mikel has been searching for a way to test his backline’s ability to defend without fully removing their dedicated shield. Because Elneny and Partey offer the workrate and balance they showed, this goal was achieved when many, myself included, felt Arteta would really have to let loose to get goals.

Lineup

Maybe it’s confidence that Arteta has come around to the notion of putting his best players in spots to succeed, maybe it’s simply because this is a lineup closer to what I want to see, but I think we may have reached a point where Aubameyang down the middle is a necessity. I know Arteta has been hesitant to enact this or feel the same way, but if Ceballos, Saka, and Pepe can rotate and play between the lines, this would allow Aubameyang to stay high more often. We will see if Arteta feels similarly.

Running through the lineup. Leno in net of course, but what a day of comparison it will be for him facing Emi.

Gabriel and Holding to get another call as the central pairing. Gabriel completely undroppable at this point, but eyes on Holding as Luiz returns from his injury and tries to regain his spot. Tierney and Bellerin have established themselves as the clear best outside back options. Sorry Maitland-Niles.

In the midfield, I stuck with Partey and Elneny for obvious reasons. However, I have opted for Ceballos next to them. I believe Elneny and Xhaka will compete with one another this season, while Ceballos and Willock compete for the third spot of a 3-man midfield. The only reason I have opted for Dani is because of the comments made by Arteta recently regarding the importance of Willock being patient at this point in his development. Personally, I would prefer if Willock got the call, but I wholeheartedly believe Arteta’s ability to not only involve Willock and Ceballos, but get the best from them, will play an important role in how high up the table Arsenal can finish. Ceballos did have a very good match against Molde, even if Willock stole the show, and when he finds it within himself to challenge the opposition backline with vertical passing and threaded passes, we see the best from Dani.

Up top I selected Saka, Aubameyang, and Pepe. In my opinion, right now these three are the best options Arsenal have up front. Aubameyang may not be in the finest of forms, but he’s always going to be in the lineup. Saka has been brilliant, truly seems to get better each time he plays and is a joy to watch this year. Finally, we come to Pepe. Pepe has been a very interesting case. In fact, Arsenal’s right wing is an interesting case, but for the wrong reasons.

Arteta seems to be struggling to get a consistent performance from Willian or Pepe this season but is determined to play Willian within the Premier League. Yet, Pepe has been finding ways to get his name on the scoresheet consistently, despite performances that leave you wanting more. However, with 5 G/A to his name this season in 11 appearances, it’s hard to argue he hasn’t produced more than Willian. Gaining a bit of consistency may only be possible through giving him consistent playing time. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken-egg’ scenario. Do you let him show consistency before giving him starts or do you give him starts to let him try to show consistency? I think tomorrow could be a good opportunity to let him build off his last two Europa League appearances.

There are other options, there is a chance Arteta looks to a 3-4-3 once more, but I believe he needs to start seizing these Premier League opportunities against sides that aren’t ‘bix 6’ sides to test Arsenal’s attacking growth.

Prediction

With that said, I do think it will be a close game. I don’t think Arsenal will run away with it, but as we saw when Villa played Southampton or Chelsea, there will be opportunities to get after them. I would like to see Arsenal control the ball and settle on it, while looking to really press Villa without the ball. Between Partey, Elneny, and possibly Ceballos, they have a midfield that is very mobile and capable of swarming and buzzing about the midfield while keeping Arsenal’s tempo high.

I expect Emi to have a good day because that’s how these things seem to go, but in the end I always believe Arsenal will prevail.

2-1 Arsenal.

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