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Know your opponent: Aston Villa

On Saturday, Aston Villa comes to the Emirates.  Who better to discuss how the Claret and Blue have been doing than Kirsten Schlewitz of SBNation's Aston Villa blog, 7500 to Holte?  That's right: nobody.  Jump below the fold for all of Kirsten's thoughts about Aston Villa so far this season (and be sure to visit 7500 for my answers to her Arsenal questions):

TH: So Aston Villa seem to have caught the "everyone on the first team get injured" bug from Arsenal this season.  The midfield in particular seems to have been hit really hard over the past few weeks.  Is the silver lining that players like Barry Bannan and Albrighton (at least up until the appendicitis) have really emerged this year as the heart of the team's future?

KS: If Villa fans didn't have their youth, they'd have nothing. Seriously, the young ones are what are keeping us going this season. Albrighton is a winged wonder and is getting less dumb (ie committing stupid tackles and conceding ridiculous fouls) every time he takes the pitch. He gets most of the attention but anyone who actually pays attention to football will see that Barry Bannan has the potential to carry the team. He'll be the leader of the midfield, a creative box to box player with perfect passes to boot. Of course, we also need to give Ciaran Clark his due, as the youngster is being shifted from central defense to central midfield and back again, without making too many mistakes; Jonathan Hogg has had two Premier League starts and looked much more confident in the second, and both Eric Lichaj and Chris Herd are getting time off the bench. At this point, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and even Gabriel Agbonlahor are starting to look ancient.

TH: Obviously, the Villa player most on Arsenal supporters' minds this past week is Robert Pires.  Arsène Wenger said that any Premier League team could really benefit from his presence this year.  He appeared to do really well in relief of Stephen Ireland; even though he's now 37, do you see him as being a key player, especially during this injury crisis?

Last week Pires did more in 22 minutes on the pitch than Ireland did in the first 68--unless we're counting passing to Blackburn (that would be the ones not in Villa kits) as a positive trait. I've already had a few rants about how Pires won't be the saving grace for Villa, but Houllier seems to want to use him as an example to the youngsters and that's totally fine. He's already shown up Ireland, and Gabby's apparently in total awe of Pires, so why not have him around? He can come off the bench to remind the youngsters what to do and also remind them that they've got years and years ahead of them--and that seems totally appropriate.

TH: and isn't he the most dreamy ever?

KS: No. SamiArse® is the most dreamy ever. Best ass in football as long as a certain Chelsea player remains dead.
(Also, aren't you betraying Vermaelen with this question?)

TH: Vermaelen just scares me into liking him.

How has the arrival of Gérard Houllier changed the team so far, tactically or otherwise?  There have been the well-publicized rifts with Ireland and John Carew, but what has he brought to the team that Martin O'Neill possibly lacked?

KS: An awareness of how the game has progressed in the last thirty years? There are two things that MON refused to do: use anything but a 4-4-2 for almost any match (although I've heard he was experimenting in the preseason before he left) and rotate the squad. I have no idea what O'Neill would have done had he experienced the amount of injuries Villa have had since he left. Actually, I rather wonder if MON has a voodoo doll for many of the  players. Anyway...with Houllier we've seen many versions of the 4-4-1-1, particularly a more attacking formation that brings everyone up the pitch. Villa are still a counterattacking team, and they still have problems with getting the ball in the net, but at times they've finally looked a little less cautious and that's been nice to watch.

TH: Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonglahor have teamed up to give Arsenal some problems on the counter in past matches.   Given Arsenal's vulnerability against quick counters this year, do you think they have a chance to do a lot of damage on Saturday?

KS: Gabby's spoken about being 'annoyed' by his lack of goals and I think he's starting to get a wee bit desperate. Should he stay disciplined and focused--not always a given with Gabs--he could cause trouble. Of course, he also relies on service from Ash and so it depends on whether good Ash or bad Ash comes out to play. Should you see the Young that can't manage to complete a pass, I wouldn't worry too much.

TH: Here's a hard-hitting question: do you like the checkers?  I think the Hummel kits with the chevrons were the best Villa kits.

KS: I love the checkered socks, at least. I hate the fact that we have the same sponsor as Fulham.

TH: Do you expect to see John Carew in action this weekend?  The official site reports that he could play, and Arsenal have struggled against bigger center forwards recently...

KS: With Albrighton out and Ireland continuing to prove that it would actually be better to have ten men on the pitch rather than eleven, this might be a time that Houllier shifts back to two true forwards--although it seems to me that would've served better against Blackburn. What seems likely to me is that Pires gets the start--I've heard he's just fine physically--with Ash playing just behind Gabs again, and then changes occur later in the match, bringing on Carew to get a few minutes and shifting into two strikers. If Houllier really wants to keep Pires as a central player, which I think is a wise plan, he can even shift Bannan out to the wing, where he played for Scotland. As long as he keeps Stewart Downing on the left rather than the right I'll be ok.

TH: Which other Midlands club do you hate the least?

KS: West Brom. How can I hate a club that's nicknamed the Baggies? I just imagine little plastic sandwich bags.

TH: A score prediction for the weekend?

KS: 3-0 to Arsenal :(

Again, many thanks to Kirsten for her responses.