A bright start, a frustrating middle portion of the match, and a shift in momentum from Alex Lacazette that led to the last-second equalizer on Monday night. Mikel Arteta’s side extended their unbeaten streak to six matches and but the four points that have been left wanting from the previous two fixtures is the exact amount between Arsenal and the top four. The chance to rectify Monday’s mistakes will come quickly as the Emirates will be the focal point Friday evening.
Up next is 13th place Aston Villa who will be even more eager than the Gunners to put their last match behind them. Despite going up my two goals and into the last quarter of the match, Villa gave up three late goals to Wolves, which like Arsenal leaves them with just three wins from the opening eight league matches of the season. This week we’ve caught up with Phil Vogel from fellow SB Nation site 7500 to Holte which covers all things Aston Villa.
TSF: Finishing 11th last season, how do you feel the club entered the ‘21-22 campaign regarding expectations and positions in the Premier League?
PV: For me, the target was, and continues to be, 60 points — a five-point increase from last year to show signs of progress. In the previous four years, 60 points would have meant finishing 9th, 8th, 7th & 6th. That is the goal. And I think it is still within reach. Villa fans’ expectations were all over the place because of the wild summer but I think most would take that kind of incremental improvement given the big exit.
TSF: Of course Jack Grealish’s exit was both the expected news and biggest transfer news for the club this past summer. Now that his time at Villa Park has come to a close how do you reflect on his time at the club and the value of that transfer fee towards reinforcing the squad to remain in the Premier League?
PV: Jack is a wonderful football player. I remember watching him as a teenager with the reserves and he was just playing a different game with his ability to get the ball to stick to his feet. I’ll remember his time very fondly... after a little more time. It is hard to watch him in a different shade of blue. He was the best player I’ve ever seen play for Villa. But he wanted something else, agreed to a massive buyout clause and someone met it. I can’t hold too much anger for that. As all clubs do, Villa have idiots on Twitter saying stupid/hateful things. The money has been well spent, the manager supported, and honestly, the team is better balanced now. Almost any club would lean on a player like Jack Grealish and Villa did that too much in the past years...but three years ago we were in the middle of the Championship table, so it worked out pretty well.
TSF: The club has used those funds to bring in Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendía & Leon Bailey. How does that trio change the Villa squad and do you believe that was good value for the Grealish funds?
PV: In a video released when the Grealish transfer was confirmed, Villa‘s CEO explicitly said the goal was not to replace Jack but to replace his attributes on the pitch. Emi Buendia for playmaking and creativity, Leon Bailey for speed and dribbling, and Danny Ings for goals. If your readers haven’t seen the video it is worth looking up. Not very often is a leader within a club so clear in terms of why the transfer happened and what the team is doing about it.
The plan is sound. Bailey’s trajectory is likely to play out over a couple of years and look for a higher move for a profit. Ings will offer leadership and goals — while allowing for some tactical flexibility. Buendia needs to get fully match fit and some momentum going — and international breaks need to stop pulling him again (but I don’t blame him). Frustratingly, we have yet to see everyone on the pitch together due to injuries and COVID issues with Buendia traveling with Argentina. Good value, good plan...I just don’t know if it will work yet.
TSF: It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster season so far for Aston Villa. An opening day defeat followed by a win over Newcastle. A pair of losses to Chelsea around a victory against Everton and then beating Manchester United. How would you explain the up-and-down results?
PV: I think it starts with losing the captain and best player Jack Grealish. That changes everything. Then two preseason matches were canceled due to COVID worries from the opposition and a slew of injuries right near the start of the season. Add in the fact that the medical room has been packed — the following players have missed at least one and could be considered starters (deep breath): Emi Martinez (Argentina duty), Tyrone Mings (injury), Douglas Luiz (reported late due to Brazil duty), John McGinn (COVID/quarantine), Jacob Ramsey (COVID/quarantine), Morgan Sanson (injury), Bertrand Traore (injury), Emi Buendia (injury, then Argentina duty), Trezeguet (long-term injury), Leon Bailey (injury), and Ollie Watkins (injury).
We’ve flipped the formation and found some success with a three at the back. But then I have also seen it go very, very wrong. I don’t know if Dean Smith will stick with it and hopefully neither does Arsenal so maybe that creates some uncertainty!
TSF: Eight matches into the league season, 10 points, and an even goal difference. How would you grade Aston Villa’s start to the year and what are your updated predictions for how they will fare this season?
PV: A solid C. It hasn’t been good nor has it been completely poor. Your characterization of a roller coaster is spot on. I’m just not certain if we are on the up or the down. Hopefully, it will level off as the season goes and maybe Villa’s best 11 can actually all be on the field at the same time.
TSF: Whether a new acquisition, existing player, or academy product, who has been the breakthrough player thus far?
PV: This is tough because of not seeing people consistently. The player your Arsenal readers may not know is 20-year-old Academy product, Jacob Ramsey. When called upon in the midfield he has shown some real signs of class. He is inconsistent, as is expected at his age and experience, but sometimes he shows the football skill that makes me excited to watch him grow. He works well when paired with John McGinn in the middle.
TSF: Now that you’ve had time to look at this squad in action, what gap(s) remain and need to be addressed during the January window?
PV: The gap is and remains a solid defensive midfielder who can also contribute to the attack. But I think every single club would love that player. They don’t come around too often. In reality, it is still too early to really pick apart the squad because Dean Smith hasn’t been able to play with a full deck yet. But — as the Wolves debacle showed — Villa could really use a midfielder to help see out games.
TSF: Dean Smith has been in charge for just about three years now overseeing their promotion from the Championship, surviving the drop in 17th, and then 11th last season. How far do you think he can take this club and how long do you expect him to remain in charge at Aston Villa?
PV: Dean Smith should not even be under pressure until he underperforms for a season. The Smith Out Twitter brigade are a loud minority. That is not to say he doesn’t deserve criticism when things go badly (freaking Wolves...). I think he needs to continue to grow as a manager and I want to see it happen at Aston Villa. Realistically, this squad at full fitness and full form (which are not things that actually happen all at the same time) can compete for Europe. In reality, Villa are a tier below that right now. Give Smith time and backing and I think he can push Villa to the next tier.
TSF: What is your projected formation and lineup for Aston Villa for this match?
PV: I already spoiled this above in admitting my complete lack of knowledge about formation and injury status. That said, I don’t think Leon Bailey will be healthy enough to start. So I don’t expect a formation change. It seems as if Douglas Luiz, Emi Buendia, and Matty Cash — all of whom were subbed off before the end of Wolves for fatigue and injuries — will be fit. So I’m guessing Dean Smith sticks with the three CBs and two up top.
Martinez, Cash, Tuanzebe, Mings, Konsa, Targett, Luiz, McGinn, Buendia, Watkins, Ings.
TSF: And, finally, give us your prediction on the scoreline.
PV: I’ll say 1-2 to Villa and hopefully my boys have learned how to see a game out.