Today, Arsenal face a stern test of their strong post-Christmas run of form that has taken them from the edges of the relegation conversation to the fringes of the European-place discussion. The Gunners travel to Aston Villa to take on one of the surprise teams of the Premier League season. I don’t think many predicted the Villans would be in the top half of the table more than halfway through the season, given they narrowly escaped relegation last year.
Away to Villa is tough enough, although strangely not as difficult as home to Villa — today’s hosts have been a far better team away from Villa Park. But with Arsenal coming off that disappointing loss to Wolves earlier this week that saw both David Luiz and Bernd Leno sent off, Mikel Arteta will be hard pressed to make sure that the stumble doesn’t turn into a fall that derails the progress his side have made in the last six weeks.
Little did we know that when the two sides met at the Emirates in early November that it would be the start of the Gunners’ extended winless run in the Premier League. Arsenal had just beaten Manchester United 1-0 with a solid defensive performance, a masterclass from Thomas Partey, and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty. But Villa thoroughly beat a flat, uninspiring Arsenal side 3-0 on the strength of a Bukayo Saka own goal and an Ollie Watkins three-minutes brace in the second half.
That clean sheet kept over Arsenal was one of 10 managed in the Premier League by former Arsenal keeper Emi Martinez this season, good for second most in the division. Martinez put in a rare subpar performance in the hosts’ midweek loss to West Ham, but I’d expect him to bounce back against his former side. As previously mentioned, Villa are giving up 1.6 goals per game at home versus .9 on the road, but again, I expect Emi to be up for the Gunners. Inevitably, he’ll be one of the focuses / storylines of the match, but the transfer was one of those rare moves that has worked out well for both clubs. Villa desperately needed a keeper and Martinez has been great; Arsenal were able to turn the money from the sale (plus a bit more cash) into Thomas Partey, who has been a critical piece.
Speaking of keepers, it’s an Arsenal debut today for Mat Ryan, who joined the Gunners on-loan in the January window. He’d been out with a slight hip problem but was in full training on Thursday and Friday and gets the nod over Alex Runarsson. The Gunners will be without Kieran Tierney today, who is still being plagued by what is becoming an increasingly ominous “right lower leg” issue that has kept him out for more than two weeks. Pablo Mari is back available and on the bench today following his calf problem. David Luiz and Bernd Leno are each serving one-match suspensions for red cards against Wolves. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who Mikel Arteta admitted was “drained” following his return from helping tend to his sick (but recovering) mother, starts on the bench.
Villa will be without defender Kortney Hause and long-term absentee Wesley.
Quick note: today marks the start of a trial run of concussion substitutes in the Premier League. Each team will be given two concussion substitutes that can be used to replace a player suspected of having suffered a head injury. Should a team use a concussion sub, their opponents will be given two additional, regular substitutions. Honestly, I don’t think that’s the best implementation of concussion subs because it still penalizes a team rather harshly for prioritizing player safety. The primary aim should be player health and safety, not dissuading teams from trying to game the system. But I guess it’s better than nothing.
Arsenal - Ryan, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Cedric, Xhaka, Partey, Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe, Lacazette
Aston Villa - Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Mings, Targett, McGinn, Nakamba, Traore, Barkley, Grealish, Watkins
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