Villa Park. It isn’t a classically romantic football ground nonetheless many fates have been decided in this corner of Birmingham throughout the years. For those of a certain age, it evokes memories of FA Cup semi-finals; the romance of the cup involving an early train to New Street, a sense of anticipation, trepidation but more than anything, of a good day out. Wembley has taken over as the venue for such ties now as the Football Association seek to recoup their investment, to stop the national stadium becoming an expensive white elephant but the flames still flicker as those days are recalled.
But today is not about that, it is about the Premier League. The weekend’s results have gone as expected yet the title odds have swayed with the prevailing wind. Victory tonight sends Arsenal back to the top of the table and a small psychological blow to those currently above them, a reminder that this year’s vintage is not prepared to yield just yet. Perhaps it is the occasion to show the depth of the squad Arsène likes to refer to, that Theo Walcott’s absence is not the blow it appears to be. In fact, they have to show that and the expectation is that they will.
Paul Lambert played down the importance of possession and having won at The Emirates on the opening day of the season without much of the ball, you understand why. It is that backdrop that ought to fire Arsenal even more, a sense of eradicating the lowest point of the season thus far; a measure of progress. The visceral chants about spending money have dimmed and the aspect narrower, the two sides meet with Arsenal needing to invest in the transfer market. As with that sunny August afternoon, there is still time to do so; now, the options are more limited for the manager with the past almost haunting Arsène as Thierry Henry stood beside him at yesterday’s training session.
Pivotal to Arsenal’s progress since the opening day defeat, has been a parsimonious defence. Villa exploited the gaps as Arsenal chased an equaliser but since then, nine of the nineteen games have ended with a clean sheet for the defence. It is, Wojciech Szczesny observed, down to a settled back four with the likes of Monreal and Jenkinson slotting into the side with a minimum of fuss. Regimentation served Wenger well in his successful sides with the defence continuously drilled in training. It is apparent that he and the coaches have put effort into this generation of players, schooling them the same way. They are not at the level of 1998 or 2004 but they are certainly more disciplined than Arsenal teams since then.
Szczesny admits it has been a weakness,
Clean sheets or something we have always wanted to improve because over the last few years we haven’t been the strongest in the league defensively. Last season we improved a lot, but I think now we are showing much more consistency in our defending. There is still room for improvement, but I have to credit the defenders and the shape of the whole team.
The last part is, I think, key to this. The whole of the team is defending, working hard to shut down opponents when they have the ball. Perhaps that should be on the rare occasions they have the ball. When it works, Arsenal are a tough team to break down; when effort drops, weakness is ruthlessly exposed as we saw against City and Villa. If you think how far apart those games are, that indicates the levels of consistency reached. Yes, there are individual errors such as at Old Trafford which are costly but no coach in the world has ever been able to eradicate them from a game.
With Thomas Vermaelen succumbing to injury, Szczesny is getting toward his favoured quartet ahead of him. Only Kieran Gibbs would seem to be missing tonight and with Nacho Monreal as a deputy, there is no urgent requirement for the England international to be rushed back into the side. It is in midfield, as always, where Wenger faces his choices. Does he pair Flamini and Arteta as a barrier or is more guile needed than the Frenchman? With the attacking trio of Özil, Cazorla and Giroud in the side, will Arsenal be better served by the artisan Flamini or either of Wilshere and Rosicky, a touch of creativity with a little bite? Personally, I am not convinced of the need for an overt defensive barrier this evening. Villa are going to cede possession and be disciplined without the ball, Arsenal need to manipulate their opponents out of position to exploit the attacking talent at their disposal. However, I suspect Arsène will go with Wilshere, saving Rosicky as a replacement for Özil or Cazorla, injecting his magic as the match reaches its latter stages.
Much of the talk since dumping Tottenham out of the cup has been around Serge Gnabry. With Aaron Ramsey absent, it seems likely that the German will be able to press his claims for a place in the national squad. Had the Welshman been fit, I wonder if the manager would have been tempted into playing Wilshere in the wide right position as he has before, focussing more on retaining possession than adding width to the attack. As it is, Gnabry’s performances this season and especially last weekend – it seems so long ago – merit his inclusion and suggest there should be little concern with him deputising for Walcott for the rest of the season.
I would expect the line-up to be:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Wilshere, Arteta; Gnabry, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
Whatever XI Arsène fields, three points is the objective and they are capable of achieving that end. Villa’s home form is very poor with just seven goals scored in ten matches; Arsenal away from home have shown a ruthless streak which needs to continue on a ground where they have enjoyed playing in the Premier League, unbeaten in fourteen visits.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.