Arsenal visit Villa Park on Sunday chasing a perfect week to kick off the busy December period. Yes, beating two teams fighting for relegation and sneaking into the Champions League last 16 shouldn’t constitute what you’d a call a perfect week for a team aiming to be crowned champions but given all that transpired during a wretched November, you got to cut Arsene Wenger and his boys some flak.
The win in Greece was fantastic. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect that in the slightest so it is going to be one European night I’ll remember for a long time. Hearing Arsenal players talk after the game was fascinating but the one phrase that really caught my attention was Theo Walcott’s “Monaco, obviously … we didn’t respect them at all.” You could say that is a damning indictment of the problems we’ve had over the past few years but the very fact that we’ve got key players making frank observations is good to see.
Onto the weekend now. We face Remi Garde and his Villa team rooted to the bottom of the table. The only bright spot for Villa fans, in what has been a grim season, is that they’ve got rid of Tim Sherwood. They’ve got a better chance of staying up without him though the jury is still out on his replacement. I got in touch with Tom Nightingale of My Old Man Said, the best Aston Villa blog out there in my opinion. Tom also writes for Sports Mole and took some time out to answer a few questions ahead of Arsenal’s game against the Villains.
Read below for Tom’s take on Villa’s struggles since the days of Martin O’Neill, Jack Grealish, Oliver Giroud and much more as he backs Van Gaal’s goal shy (boring) Manchester United to start firing soon to spice up the title race.
- Please introduce yourself/your blog to our readers.
I’m a longstanding contributor and column writer for My Old Man Said, which is both a Villa blog (we’ve won the Football Blogging Awards a couple of times) and a supporter group that is active on supporter issues, most recently the away ticket price Twenty’s Plenty campaign. Some Arsenal fans will know My Old Man Said from the Wembley giant Sex Pistols – inspired surfer flag that was banned by the FA. The Arsenal fan support of our flag was overwhelming and much appreciated, and hundreds of Gooners signed our petition against the FA.
- It has been a tough start to the season for Villa. What’s the vibe around the club?
When Remi Garde took over from Tim Sherwood in early November there was something of resurgence in optimism at the club. After weeks of puzzling on-field tactics and increasingly concerning off-field reports, there was hope of a change in fortunes, of a manager who would be capable of more than a couple of plucky wins and incessant patter in the press. Fast forward six weeks or so, and the fans seem split fairly evenly between resigned acceptance that the time for us to drop has arrived and unwavering faith that there’s still time. In short, it’s nervy, and we all know that something has to change for the better before Christmas if we are to survive.
- Ever since O’Neill left, things haven’t worked out for Villa. If so many managers are failing, isn’t there some fundamental problem? What do you think it is and are Villa anywhere close to fixing it?
Wishing for change is a dangerous thing to do, of course, but the general consensus around the club for a couple of years now has been that we would be better off if Randy Lerner could find a new buyer and move on. The fiscal mismanagement which took place at Villa under Martin O’Neill when we were chasing a top four finish five or six years ago has been dogging the club ever since and though ex-Arsenal man Tom Fox has done some things right and some things wrong since his arrival as CEO, things would surely improve if the club was under new (but, of course, fit and proper) ownership. The problem is that Lerner has failed to find a buyer so far, and if things continue as they are this season, Villa could become an almost impossible sell in the Championship.
- Remi Garde hasn’t been in charge for long. What do the fans think of him? Does the comparison with Arsene Wenger come up when discussing him?
The jury is still out on Remi Garde after only a few weeks in charge, but all the signs so far point to him being a far more capable manager than some that the club has had in recent years. His team selections have been more logical than those of Sherwood, and his handling of the Jack Grealish situation (see below) has shown everyone at the club that he means business. He’s got a hell of a job on his hands, but there has been improvement in certain areas on the field in recent weeks. As far as the comparison with Wenger goes, if he can nurture the young talent at Villa as his former boss has done on numerous occasions at Arsenal, we could at least have a bright spot ahead in the future.
- What do you make of Jack Grealish? He’s gone from a key player under Sherwood to training with the reserves?
The latest controversy surrounding Grealish has dominated the headlines, but the truth is that even before that he has been virtually anonymous this season, save for his goal in the 3-2 defeat to Leicester three months ago. He is a young, precocious talent and he needs nurturing in the right way. Sherwood made him a regular, yes, but he also appeared to turn a blind eye to all the media controversies which kept popping up. Every young man likes a drink, of course, but Grealish needs serious and firm advice on how to handle his personal life and keep out of the public eye off the pitch. Garde’s comparative heavy – handedness will surely prove a better tactic in the long run than Sherwood’s constant disregard for the effect that media pressure puts on a young footballer’s career.
- How have the summer signings fared? Who’s been Villa’s player of the season so far?
There has been some promise from Villa’s summer signings, but the most promising new addition has probably been Jordan Amavi at left-back, something which is rather unfortunate given that the 21-year-old is expected to miss the rest of the season through injury. Elsewhere, Jordan Ayew has provided the majority, if not all, of Villa’s attacking threat in recent weeks and has hit three goals in his last seven games. Jordan Veretout is gradually settling in in the centre of midfield alongside Idrissa Gana, who has impressed, and Birmingham-born defenders Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott have added experience at the back, although they have developed a concerning habit of providing one or two scary moments most weeks.
- Your take on Arsenal Football Club.
Arsenal, as always, are an interesting club to assess. The win in midweek against Olympiacos which saw them progress against the odds to the last 16 of the Champions League could be a seminal point in their season as they avoided beginning a possible slide into true crisis in the first half of the season. If they can weather the perpetual injury storm at the club, they have the best squad in recent years to launch a sustained title challenge.
- Arsenal are two points off the top. Do you think we’ve got a chance in the league this year?
With Mesut Ozil finally firing on all cylinders in midfield, Aaron Ramsay back to fitness, and Alexis Sanchez now reported as likely to be back in contention for the key clash with a faltering Manchester City later this month, Arsenal’s squad is possibly the best that it has been for several years. In terms of competing for the Premier League, you could suggest that an early European exit would have been a benefit, but if the confidence boost of progressing to the last 16 can be followed by a strong run in the league throughout December and the Christmas period, the Gunners have every chance of being up there in May.
- Which Arsenal player has impressed you the most?
All the headlines have of course been surrounding Ozil, whose form this season has finally seen him show his true class in an Arsenal shirt. One player who gets far too much stick from Arsenal fans, neutrals and the media alike is Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman’s hat-trick against Olympiacos showcased his ability, and though constant rumours of strikers such as Karim Benzema arriving at the Emirates don’t help his cause, with Ozil and Sanchez in full flow behind him, he has the potential to finally become a 20-goal-a-season striker in the Premier League.
- There has been a lot of talk about the quality of the Premier League. The performances of the top clubs have been patchy both in Europe and domestically while clubs like Leicester and Palace have impressed. Your take on that.
The Premier League may have dropped in quality compared with a decade or so ago, or it may just be that a lot of lower teams have become more competitive. Either way, it is creating the kind of excitement (although not as a Villa fan at the moment, it must be said!) that was arguably lacking from the league when you look back at all the years when there was no sign of any ‘smaller’ club launching a challenge for a European spot. Leicester will surely run out of steam at some point, but you can’t argue that it won’t have been a fun rollercoaster to ride.
- Predictions for the season.
With Chelsea out of the picture for the title already (nobody can recover from that start), Arsenal could find themselves as the nearest challengers to Manchester City for top spot once Leicester’s momentum falters. Having said that, don’t expect Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United to have problems scoring all season long, and once they find their killer touch again they will be serious competitors. As for the bottom, Villa face a mountainous task and need to pick up some wins before the New Year if we are to have any hope, while Bournemouth and both North East sides will likely be hovering on the cusp of the danger zone all season long.
- Where will the game be won and lost? Score prediction.
If Villa are to get any kind of positive result on Sunday, we must stifle Ozil and Ramsey in the midfield. Alexis Sanchez’s absence is undeniably good news for us, but Giroud has more than enough quality to trouble our defence and the thought of Theo Walcott’s pace against whoever is chosen at left-back this week makes me shudder inwardly. As far as Villa are concerned, if we can get a foothold in midfield then Ayew and some of our more attack-minded players have the capabilities to cause the visiting defence problems. As a personal score prediction, however, I think we’re looking at something in the region of 3-1 Arsenal.
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