Here we are facing Arsenal now in another evening match on the heels of two successive defeats. I’ve been rather distracted by current events of late, which means I wrote up a match review of Southampton and never got it posted.
There’s been a lot of angst about the goals shipped in Villa’s last two, and with Southampton, I maintain it’s rather hard on the team to draw too many conclusions from a dead-ball masterclass from Ward-Prowse. Yes, reckless fouls on our part, and down to being second best in the early going. But ordinarily you just wouldn’t be punished so ruthlessly. Down three at the half, Villa would be forgiven for not quite believing they were three goals worse.
Compounding matters, Danny Ings naturally fired flawlessly into the far top corner to make it 0-4 before Villa could get to grips and make a show of it in a losing cause.
But even if Southampton had eased off, the spirit and fightback were significant, and the Saints didn’t seem able to respond. Three goals clawed back, momentum and some degree of confidence in our ability to score restored. After, Smith said there was some discussion about tactics, but that he told his players there wasn’t anything going on they couldn’t understand or match. However, I found the details of the halftime discussion to be quite a positive. That’s a good dressing room, where everyone can speak, suggest changes, and management listen. Smith’s explanation of what they’ve been doing in midfield also gives some confidence that he’s not as clueless as is sometimes imagined.
As we endured the inevitable inquests and calls for Poch, et al, we’ve seen Leeds fall to successive 1-4 defeats. Meaning there is no inevitable magic to Bielsa’s blueprint, and it perhaps became evident that had we taken our chances in that game, it would’ve played out differently. It may well have looked like Palace’s performance, in all likelihood.
We can get to Bielsa vs. Smith again later, and I’m sure we will, but I will say that in the post-match analysis of the defeat at Palace, Tim Howard (you know, the former Everton keeper) pointed to the helter-skelter nature of Leeds’ style. More than anything, it’s about attacking and defending in waves, running themselves and opponents into the ground. Yes, they’re well drilled in their patterns of attacking play, and they do execute their attacks with a lot of crisp passing. But in the end, it’s as predictable as anyone else’s approach. The trick is that most teams just can’t keep up. They’re relentless. And if they get the lead, it seems unstoppable. If they don’t, they’re just a very annoying opponent who can be had with good counters and quick attacks. But you’ll never quite feel comfortable, regardless.
Back to today, and Arsenal have had a couple decent results. But until Arteta & Co can show us this is a new era, we can be forgiven for expecting their up-and-down ways to continue. Doesn’t mean we come away with a victory today, of course. But this is not necessarily a team to fear any more than Southampton or Leeds.
Coming in, we sit level on points, a position higher due to goal difference, and still with a game in hand. Arsenal have lost three of their last five, Villa two.
So while the focus has been on the negatives given the last two results, I think everyone should remember we’d have been quite happy to take a 4-0-2 start to the season if it had been offered to us.
What Villa need to do is be composed, and just focus on their game: being tighter and breaking quickly and effectively. Getting in and out of the high press at the right times. For their part, Arsenal won’t be as relentless without the ball as Leeds or even Southampton, in all likelihood. And if they are to start, it won’t last over 90. Patience is key, but I’m sure Villa will also be looking for a better start than against the Saints, and to convert any early chances. That’s pretty much our formula.
We know Traoré won’t be getting a second consecutive start, so it’s virtually guaranteed that Trez will return. I’m assuming Matty Cash will, as well, even though he was subbed off last time out for the more experienced Elmohamady. It was probably a move to protect him and preserve his confidence as much as anything.
But the thing to watch for is clearly what Smith does with McGinn and Barkley in the middle. It sometimes hasn’t looked right after looking good, and Smith has talked about in-game changes. Without going back and watching, it’s hard to offer any meaningful insight that goes beyond Dean’s.
Does someone make way for Hourihane, or even Nakamba? No idea, but if there are any changes, you’d expect it to involve Conor and not Marvelous. Me, I’m guessing Deano stands pat.
So there we are. A draw would be fine, a win would be better. We’ll see how it plays out.
Over to you.