It’s quite astonishing how one half of football can put a real dent into the optimism that had been built for the better part of the past two months across the Arsenal fan base, as the gunners’ 2nd half performance against Watford raised so many unanswered questions that had been lingering from the 2018/2019 end of season capitulation. A lacklustre performance that featured half of Arsenal’s summer signings (William Saliba out of the equation) showed just how far the potential of this squad is, from its current reality. But, football fans are emotional and a win against Frankfurt in the Europa League might have done some good in banishing the some of ghosts of the second-half against Watford away. A win at home to Aston Villa will go a long way in re-connecting Unai Emery with several fans who held him responsible for the collapse at Vicarage road.
The inexplicable tale of 2-2s
Such reality had been made so difficult to accept considering the fact that after recovering from a two-goal deficit to share the spoils in the North London Derby just before the International break, Arsenal did actually take two steps backward and inexplicably further dropped two more points by throwing away a 2-goal halftime lead to escape with a stalemate, recording the most contrasting consecutive 2-2 draws in the process, thus picking up two points from the last possible nine.
Following what was arguably the lowest point of Arsenal’s season so far, Unai Emery’s side has been presented with a juicy chance to restore some sanity and pride, as they host familiar Premier League opposition in Aston Villa. Although the 2018/2019 Championship play-off winners haven’t set foot at the Emirates since their last Premier League game of the 2015/2016 season, the Claret and Blue Army will be making their eleventh appearance at the Emirates Stadium, having won twice on Arsenal’s home soil.
Arsenal are the clear favourites to pick up three points against Aston Villa noted by MyTopSportsbooks.com, while Villa are around 13/2 to win and the draw is paying at about 9/2. The Gunners have left some points on the table in the early going, but this is still a team that won fourteen home games, drew three and lost two at the Emirates last year, while freshly-promoted Villa had an uninspiring nine wins, eight draws and six losses away in last year’s Championship and have lost their first two away matches this season.
Now despite the fact that no current player in either side was present in the dramatic 1-3 loss to the Villains on the opening day of the 2013/2014 campaign which shows how much the Arsenal and especially the squad has undergone a massive overhaul, that deflating defeat is another timely reminder of how things could suddenly go wrong against an opposition who have nothing to lose and would consider a trip to the Emirates as a free hit. With that in mind, Sunday’s home fixture has the little look of a potential banana skin rather than easily being the best tonic for the successive 2-2 draws.
Building the attacking core
Make no mistake, the attacking trio deployed alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was fluid and superior enough to carve out and finish off chances created against a Watford backline bereft of confidence. However, with that attack still not functioning properly enough to counter and respond to the 31 shots Arsenal faced at Vicarage Road and 96 in total this season, it is still the prerogative of the head coach to persist with a triumvirate attacking chemistry, who orchestrated a 20 pass move that led to the 2nd goal of the game on Sunday.
With Ceballos, Ozil and Pepe starting for the first time together, the complementary qualities of the trio in the first half had a balanced look to it. In essence, as was stated in my last article, the possibility of Ceballos starting games on the left – especially those that have Mesut Ozil in the first XI, has always been relatively high with the Spanish midfielder (Ceballos) capable of imposing his ball retention, creative drive, tenacious pressing edge and fullback awareness, therefore enabling Ozil the time and space he needs to likewise drift in-between the lines to link up play and/or equally show his appreciation of fullback awareness.
While Ozil’s continuous movement into Pepe’s territory may seem a little worrying, it should be noted that when not hugging the touchlines or trying to cut in or help retain possession at crucial moments, Pepe is mostly alert to darting into uncharted space in and around the opposition box and could have been played in by Ozil on a couple of occasions on Sunday, only to be denied by the finest of details. Hence, regardless of what formation will be used against Villa (and beyond) in this wake-up call moment – 4-2-3–1 or 4-3-3 or a diamond-shaped system in midfield, or even a 3-4-3 system, the double signings of Ceballos and Pepe have the qualities to combine on the same attacking wavelength with Ozil; a trait that has been lacking since Alexis Sanchez’s exit from the club.
However, Bukayo Saka’s immense contribution to the win over Frankfurt must have given Unai Emery some points to ponder. Points not only limited to playing the youngster but an overall assessment of output he should expect from the left side of attack. Since his arrival, Unai Emery has tinkered the most with his set up on the left side of Arsenal’s attack which Kolasinac, Iwobi, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan and Reiss Nelson all having stints in that position. Saka created five chances created, two assists and a goal is the most Unai has gotten from a player in from the left side of the pitch in a single match since his arrival. The mental debate for Unai must now be one of trusting a young player in a game in which he must win given how poorly Arsenal performed in the previous premier league.
Having said that, it is equally imperative to find the right midfield balance to enable the more advanced attacking trio express themselves and their compatibility in the best way possible, with a potential double pivot of Lucas Torreira looking the most adept in quickly spotting and averting continuous phases of dangers in front of the back four, while showing satisfactory poise on the ball whenever necessary. Thus, what better way to start a new era than against a probable defensively set up/goal-shy Aston Villa side who share similar average shots conceded per game statistics (18), as Arsenal (19).
However, Unai Emery’s comments post the Frankfurt game shows he is not likely to play Torreira in the double pivot role to offer more protection to the defenders that have been petered with shots all season. Arsenal might have won the game in Germany by a clear margin but familiar problems remained with the team conceding twenty-four shots against their German opponents and with better finishing the tale of the game might have been different. Arsenal also allowed the Germans thirty-five crosses in the game, a number that eclipsed the twenty-two they allowed against Watford last weekend. These are worrying stats for Arsenal as giving space in midfield for shots and not covering the flanks, therefore, allowing crosses continually put pressure on the defenders and the results thus far have been evident.
These days, Mesut Ozil is an integral part of almost all pre-match conversations at Arsenal. It was a shock to many that the manager decided to play him away at Watford and he put up a decent performance. The decision to then rest him for the trip to Frankfurt given he had played only seventy-seven minutes of football this season is a strange one given one would think players like Aubameyang were more deserving of rest. It is also not lost on Mesut Ozil, the decent level of productivity he has managed to record against Aston Villa, with 2 goals and 4 assists to his name in 6 appearances against Aston Villa. However, Arsenal’s marksman, Aubameyang is set to face Aston Villa for the first time, and with the blistering form he has maintained since the penultimate month of last season, it represents another opportunity to pick a favourite opposition and Villa are certainly there for the taking, judging from what has been observed since making their long-awaited return to the Premier League.
A window of opportunity for Chambers-Holding CB partnership?
In defence, concerning the classic “glass half empty/full” perspective, it is relatively unknown if the central defensive situation involving Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz has made things clearer or more complicated. A clear-minded paradigm would probably see the immediate drop in the selection of either of both defenders in place of Calum Chambers, while the more complicated view would involve the possibility of persisting with the Luiz-Sokratis partnership that has so far yielded more harm than good as a pair. With both being vastly experienced Internationals, it has perhaps become fairly logical to take any of the duos out of the side to hand Chambers that opportunity he has been craving for since his steady display at Newcastle on the opening day of the season.
With Rob Holding almost ready for first-team football, it, therefore, won’t be out of place to include his English defensive counterpart into the equation as a possible immediate partner. That being said it would represent another medium to show how much the probable youthful English centre back pairing has grown in leaps and bounds since the edgy display experienced when they last partnered each other in the early weeks of the 2016/2017 Premier League season.
Following the last gunners win this season coming against Burnley on Matchday 2, Arsenal grace the Emirates turf on Sunday, presumably to inject a fresh and fast-paced start that will hopefully guarantee a welcome boost in the dressing room, ahead of the fast-approaching Premier League showdown at Old Trafford on Matchday 7. With The Red Devils travelling to West Ham on Super Sunday and Chelsea hosting Liverpool likewise on the same day, the importance of registering three points against Dean Smith’s side should be deemed as the necessary foundation laid for a change in erratic mentality at the backline and fluid freedom of expression in the final third.
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