Arsenal Women face Aston Villa at Villa Park on Saturday evening. Villa are one of the three sides unbeaten in the WSL (with Arsenal and Tottenham) and although thoughts may naturally begin turning to next Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Barcelona, Arsenal will first have to remain focused on the task of beating Aston Villa.
Villa barely escaped relegation last season, with a 0-0 draw against Arsenal on the final day enough to keep them in the league. Over the summer, Villa made a number of signings, starting with Carla Ward as manager, with Hannah Hampton also joining from Birmingham. Ward did exceptionally well to keep Birmingham in the WSL last season, and has brought defensive solidity to Villa, who have allowed the 6th fewest shots on goal thus far this season, and the fourth fewest expected goals.
Their opponents, though, have not been the WSL’s best, although Brighton, who they beat 1-0 last time out, are one of the better teams in the WSL’s mid-table. Ward knows the challenge ahead of her is a big one, but she has been preparing, telling the BBC’s Emma Sanders that Villa were playing 12 v 11 in training, and that Villa’s goal would be to “slow things down.” Having added Emily Gielnik upfront, Villa have a bit more scoring ability than last season, when Shania Hayles led the team in scoring with just four goals.
Arsenal, though, will be able to call upon a fully rested Vivianne Miedema, who did not play in Wednesday’s 5-1 defeat of Spurs. Jonas Eidevall made 8 changes ahead of the Spurs game, and he could make a similar number here, with Beth Mead, Miedema, Kim Little, Jen Beattie, and Steph Catley all in line to return to Arsenal’s starting lineup.
Mana Iwabuchi played for Aston Villa last year to great fanfare, though she ended up being largely peripheral at Villa after they switched to a more long ball, defensive style. At Arsenal, she’s stepped into the team as if she’s been there for years, and has the chance to impress against her old team. Iwabuchi scored against Spurs, nutmegging Josie Green while winning a second ball before firing into the corner, and it is that talent that could see her hold onto a starting role from Wednesday. Iwabuchi’s skill on the ball is immense, but there were a number of moves that broke down at various stages from a sloppy pass. With Jordan Nobbs returning and Frida Maanum impressing, spots in Arsenal’s midfield are as competitive as they are out wide, and thus playing well against Villa may be the difference between starting against Barcelona and sitting on the bench.
Predicted lineup (4-2-3-1): 1. Zinsberger; 16. Maritz, 3. Wubben-Moy, 5. Beattie, 7. Catley; 13. Wälti, 10. Little; 9. Mead, 23. Iwabuchi, 15. McCabe; 11. Miedema
Substitutes: 18. Williams, 4. Patten, 6. Williamson, 8. Nobbs, 12. Maanum, 14. Parris, 19. Foord, 22. Schnaderbeck, 77. Heath
WHAT: Aston Villa Women vs Arsenal Women, FA WSL
WHERE: Villa Park, Birmingham
WHEN: Saturday, October 2nd 9:15 AM PDT | 12:15 PM EDT | 5:15 PM BST
WATCH: NBC Sports Extra, atafootball.com (streaming, US), BBC 2 (UK, TV), BBC iPlayer (streaming, UK)