Arsenal vs. Villa: The Preview

Our tour of renewing old acquaintances continues today, as we head back to the Emirates Stadium and the scene of our feckless final game in our last ill-fated Premier League campaign.

Times have changed however, and but for Jack Grealish, thankfully so has our team, so can we now look back and gain inspiration from impressive wins of years gone by instead? Before today’s game, we’ve checked out the opposition viewpoint from Peter at le-grove.co.uk (@LeGrove on Twitter), who’s kindly answered our questions about what we can expect from the Gunners.

1. How would you rate Arsenal’s start to the campaign? Above or below expectations?

Below expectations. Unai Emery kicked-off this season where he left off the last. Our defensive structure is weak and confused. The team has no character. Our pressing has stopped. We’re toying with ideas that aren’t working, like our short passing out the back. Our performances have been dreadful.

Last season, Emery’s lack of talent was masked by the ghost of Arsène Wenger. A year on, with huge outlays on new players, he has nowhere to hide. We have a great squad of players, he needs to make them work for him.

2. After a first full season at the helm, how do you gauge Arsenal fans’ feelings towards Unai Emery’s tenure so far? Are things moving in the right direction or is he already under pressure?

He’s under huge pressure already. Things are so bad that he risked his only fit striker against Frankfurt away on Thursday night. The players are leaking stories to the press, or flat out complaining about things. Maitland-Niles is moaning about his position, Auba complained about the defence, and Xhaka laughably threw his strikers under the bus. It’s not a happy camp and that’s reflected in the dreadful football.

The fans haven’t turned, but dissenting voices are gaining more attention because some of things we’re seeing on the pitch are unforgivable. The simplest way to sum up what’s going on is to look at who our captain is: Granit Xhaka. He’s totally unsuited to the league physically, he’s a mistake terrorist, and he’s a terrible leader. When you can’t get a basic like the captains’ armband right, you’re in trouble.

3. So far this season Arsenal have looked shaky defensively. What do you put that down to: tactics or personnel or both? With such threat in attack how do you think you can strike a balance between the strengths and the weaknesses?

It’s a blend of many ingredients. The main issue is tactical. The manager isn’t set on a formation that works for him. The players don’t really know what they’re doing on the pitch. He’s played a diamond, he’s tried 3 holding midfielders, he’s worked a double pivot and a roving 10. Nothing has really clicked. 

Combine that with our substandard off the ball movement, the complete collapse of our press, and consistent stream of errors… well, it’s a total mess. No club in the top 5 European leagues has conceded as many shots as Arsenal. We are very average at the moment.

Our saving grace has been our attack. Mostly Auba, who is consistently excellent in front of goal. We also have quite a lot of pace going forward, Pepe has huge potential and some of the kids offer us something different out wide. The trouble has been that Emery has quite a one-dimensional approach to transitioning the ball forward, most of our attacking play tends to be focused on finding fullbacks on the overlap. We’re very averse to playing through the middle, gone are the days of fast-paced combination play. We’re a team that looks for the counter-attack, which makes us fairly predictable to play against.

4. How do you think you’ll set up for Sunday’s match? What are the weaknesses in Villa that you think you’ll seek to exploit? And what weaknesses should Villa attack if they hope to get a result?

I have no idea how he’ll play, but we’ll probably see a double-pivot of Xhaka and LT (Lucas Torreira), then Ceballos in a more advanced position. We’ll then have two wide players supporting Auba upfront (4-2-1-3)

Villa will have watched the videos. You’ll come to upset our defence with high-intensity pressing, looking for easy turnovers deep in our half. You’ll rattle our midfield that struggles under pressure, and you’ll get lots of opening in front of the back 4, which is usually protected poorly, and you’ll likely find opportunities to get in behind.

The counter to the above is that we have one of the finest finishers in the world hunting out half chances (Auba). Give him a quarter of a yard and he will bury you. We might also start Saka after he impressed in midweek, he has lots of pace and tricks and his delivery is classy.

5. And finally, how do you see the game going and what’s your prediction?

I hope Arsenal will win 2-1, but I have to be honest, this could be a lot closer than it should be.

Being realistic, this will be a tough game for Villa to get a result from, but then again, this current Arsenal side is not one of their finest of recent times. There are undoubtedly star talents in the team who are going to be hard to stop; Aubameyang needs only the sniff of a chance to score and with talents like Ceballos, Lacazette and Pépé in attack our defence will have to be at it’s absolute best to stop them, and we’ll have to remain very focused to hinder their lightning pace if we hope to get anything out of this game.

At the other end however, Arsenal’s defence is as soft as it’s been in a long time. There is an inherent uncertainty, weakness and lack of leadership at the back for Arsenal, and we will have to seek to drive in at them and test their resolve as much as we can without being reckless to the threat of a counter. Now would be a perfect game for our attacking players to really begin to click into goalscoring mode, because if they can get the pressing, movement and passing right, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t believe we can go and score there.

We’re the underdogs in this one so a point would be very welcome from a tricky away day. We’ve upset the Gunners before on their own patch and looking at their current rumblings of discontent on and off the pitch, now might be as good an opportunity to pounce as ever. For inspiration we only need look at Sheffield United and their collective belief that they can win at home or on the road to know that if our mindset is right, if we remain patient and stay focused and determined on our tactics and shape, then we are certainly capable of making it difficult for Arsenal and coming away with something. With heart over head perhaps, I’m going to be optimistic and say 1-1.

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