We travel to Villa Park to take on Remi Garde’s Aston Villa and, needless to say, three points is the acceptable result. After a downright disastrous November we’ve only recently notched our first league win (in 4 games) and considering how hard of a January we are about to have, picking up as many points as humanly possible in December is a must.
Aston Villa are dead-last in the table, having picked up just 6 points from 15 games. Garde’s men are 6 points off 19th-placed Sunderland, 8 points off safety and 9 points off Chelsea (mwahaha).
Their numbers are pretty abysmal: 14 league games without a win, 23 lost league games in 2015 calendar year and an 8-game winless streak at home to top it all off. They have conceded 28 goals this season (only Sunderland, Newcastle and Bournemouth conceded more – 30) and scored only 13 – less than a goal per game. Things looked a bit better for them during Garde’s first game in charge (a draw vs City), but since then they’ve lost twice and drawn another game with a combined difference of -5.
Furthermore, Villa have an atrocious record vs Arsenal. The Villains haven’t beaten Arsenal at home in 16 league games (a run that stretches, naturally, back to 1998) and have lost all 3 games to the Gunners last year, conceding 12 times in the process and failing to score even 1 goal.
Our overall away record should also be a source of worries for Villa fans – only 2 lost games in the last 14, with 10 wins. This record, frankly, should have been even better, but alas, we screwed up our November big time.
Team news update
We don’t have fresh injury concerns, while no one is coming back too (which isn’t very surprising). However, Alexis looks to be on course to return for our pivotal clash vs City on the 21st:
“He is back on Sunday, he trains on Monday morning at 9.30 a.m.
He is running already… I sent him back to Chile, where he has been running with the physio of the national team, and we will see what kind of state he is in next week. He may be a bit short for City, certainly, but with Alexis you never know.”
Alexis? Short after a week of training? You wish. Guy played in our first league game after barely having two training sessions. I rather think it’s Wenger playing mind games a bit, making Pellegrini nervous as to whether Sanchez will be involved.
The next guy to come back should be Arteta, but all the others will only “be available after Christmas”. Whatever the hell that means. Wenger only specified the date of Rosicky’s return (end of January), the mooted date for Jack is early January (the cup game, maybe?), while Welbeck resembles a forgotten man more and more. No update on him was given.
This situation is sad and a bit alarming. I don’t mean just Welbeck, I mean our regular injury crisis. We started the season with 24 players, on paper. In reality, it was 21, because Wilshere, Rosicky, Welbeck. This list of 21 players includes Flamini (a 3rd-choice DM who is now 1st-choice) and a half-dead Arteta. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mikel, I’ve defended him for quite some time (and continue to do so, he is a much better footballer than given credit for) and I am, of course, deeply grateful for everything he’s done for us, coming in at a torrid time in 2011 and steadying the ship. But it has become apparent we can no longer rely on him.
Mikel limped off on the 21st of November with a “slight calf strain”. One which has already kept him on the sidelines for 3 weeks and one which will keep him out for at least further 2. Arteta’s ongoing problems basically mean we had, at best, 20 players we can rely on in August. That includes Flamini (supposed to be 3rd-choice, remember?) The real question is, did Arsene know Arteta wouldn’t be able to keep up? Because if he did, not buying another midfielder was sheer madness. You can’t for months on end relying on just 20 players.
Right now we have 17 fit players. Alexis’ return will make it 18, which means only just scraping a starting XI and a bench. A bench with 4 defenders on it. When it comes right down to it, 2 injuries in midfield (Cazorla and Coquelin) was all it took to place Arsenal in a tricky situation. Not only because both are, per se, very important players, who have been regular starters in 2015, but also because, starting the season with a 21-man (de-facto) means any further injuries strain the squad to its limits. Which is what happened to us. We are not mad because Cazorla and Coquelin are out. Any half-decent side can cope with 2 injuries, regardless of how important the injured were. It’s coping with 5-6 that makes the situation dangerous.
I can see only one way out: buying another central midfielder in January and weathering the storm. And then, in May, assessing our injury-prone players and their future with the Club. Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky will definitely leave, thus solving some of our problems. Of other players, only the English contingent seems injury-prone, Calum Chambers exempting. I doubt we’ll see Ramsey or Walcott axed, the former Wenger loves too much and Aaron is the least injury-prone, the latter signed a new lucrative contract just this summer.
Which leaves us with Oxlade, Wilshere, Gibbs and possibly Welbeck. Danny suffered a nasty injury, but that doesn’t mean he is prone yet, the other three, though… Arsene should really pay close attention to how they fare in 2016. Especially since Gibbs and Oxlade haven’t established themselves as regulars still and their performances, for now at least, leave a lot to be desired.
If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to. I love Jack, Danny and Ox, Gibbs to a lesser extent maybe. But I’m dead tired of relying on players who don’t contribute all that much and take up places in the squad. Not just one or two players too. Six. Six injury-prone players. Their absence costs us every season and I want that to change. If such desperate times require such desperate measures, then so be it.
I can’t see Arsene making many changes, simply because we don’t have the luxury of choosing. The only debatable positions are striker, left/right wing and, possibly, central midfield.
As for changing strikers, well, I still think Giroud may need a rest, simply because he started 10 games in a row, but look what happened the last time I suggested resting the Frenchman: a quite wonderful performance topped off with a hat-trick. We know how Arsene is reluctant to rotate in-form players and, more importantly, Ollie’s heroics should have breathed new life into the Frenchman, so I don’t think we’ll see Ollie rested just yet.
As for our wings, Campbell seems to have cemented his place, hilarious as it may seem. A run in the side definitely benefited the Costa-Rican, he notched at least 2 goals and 2 assists in the last 8 games (ever since he started vs Swansea) and he should be in better physical shape than either Walcott or Oxlade, both of whom have only just returned from injury.
The other side of the pitch is more of a dilemma. Walcott or Oxlade. I’d say Walcott will get the nod, simply because he offers more than the Ox. He is tidier on the ball and much more threatening in the final third.
Finally, I’m very interested at which stage the operation “Chambers in central midfield” currently is. Personally, I’m surprised we haven’t seen Calum play there for more than 10 minutes lately. The opportunity have been ample ever since Coquelin limped off against West Brom: Norwich and Sunderland in the league and Zagreb and Olympiacos in the CL. Sure, these were all very important games, games we had to win, but it’s still better to give Calum a try there than against City or during the busy Christmas schedule.
Aston Villa is the last game to blood Chambers in a new position. After that we have City and Southampton and both look much less forgiving opponents. After Southampton it’s five days till January, a month by which Wenger must already make up his mind whether he needs a new holding midfielder or whether Chambers and Flamini are adequate stand-ins until Coquelin returns. Unless, of course, Wenger has already decided Chambers is a no-go in midfield and we need to buy. That would explain why he’s persisting with Flamini at a time when the opposition allows us to try out Chambers in a new role.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Bellerin – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Monreal – Flamini – Ramsey – Ozil – Walcott – Campbell – Giroud
As it stands, we should have enough in our lockers to beat Villa. On a high after beating Sunderland and, more importantly, Olympiacos, the players should be up for the task at hand.
A win will also take us to the top of the table, at least till Leicester play Chelsea. City have only just beaten a manager-less Swansea (but they still did), meaning we can leapfrog them by a solitary point in case we win.
So come on you Gunners.
Unfortunately I won’t be able to watch the game live, so there will be no review from me. However, keep your eyes peeled anyway, in case Sohum makes the game.
Over and out from me for now.
P.S. Oh, just in case you’ve been thinking about additional reading on Aston Villa, here’s this week’s “A view from the opponents” column. Can thoroughly recommend it, fascinating stuff.