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Arsenal at Aston Villa preview: Into the Fire

After two nervy wins, Arsenal head to Villa Park for an exciting top four clash.

Luton Town v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Just as we were getting comfortable with the return of Boring, Old Arsenal, the Gunners decided to give us two nervy-but-exciting results in a row that harken back to last season’s heart-stopping antics. Saturday’s 2-1 win over Wolves at home was followed up by a come-from-behind, at-the-death 4-3 victory at Luton Town to keep the Gunners on top of the Premier League table. The elevated heart rates are not likely to come down this weekend, as the Gunners face a red-hot Aston Villa fresh off a statement victory over Manchester City.

Villa Park has turned into one of the league’s most intimidating grounds. The Birmingham-based club have been incredible at home, evidenced by their confidently dominant display over the title holders on Wednesday. They have yet to drop a point when playing hosts, a feat that no other side in the league can claim. At 14 matches, their undefeated streak extends back to last season, with their last loss coming in late February when two late goals from the visitors sank them 2-4.

That victorious club? Our very own Arsenal, who are seeking to end Villa’s run and win their 5th straight league match.

Here are five talking points ahead of Saturday’s clash:

Managing without the Manager

Following Arsenal’s dramatic late winner at Luton, Mikel Arteta received his third yellow card of the season for “excessive celebration,” which means he will be watching the Aston Villa match from the stands, handing off managerial duties to AirPod Albert Stuivenberg. For such an offense, you’d expect that the manager did something over the top, like taunting the official or running the full length of the touchline to celebrate with fans, which apparently is only fine if you’re someone like Jurgen Klopp.

But Arteta did none of those things. His crime? Hugging his coaching staff exuberantly before being wrangled in by a handler to keep him from being outside of his area. The absolute nerve. The card was as incredulous as it was expected, considering his bristly relationship with the PGMOL, but it comes at a critical time, as the team’s ability to play to their standard without Mikel’s animated presence on the touchline will be put to the test.

As if we needed any added intensity to the match…

We Meet Again

Speaking of managers, what can you say about the job former Arsenal manager Unai Emery has done at Aston Villa? Fair play to him. He never quite was the man for Arsenal, but he has returned to the PL with a vengeance and vindicated himself incredibly. He has Villa deservedly third in the table after Wednesday’s win against City where the hosts thoroughly outplayed the reigning treble holders. It was a shockingly one-sided affair as Villa outshot Pep Guardiola’s side 22-2. For all of the plaudits other newer managers have gotten, Emery has arguably done the most impressive job so far without needing to splash exorbitant amounts of money on overpriced dross.

Stop the Bleeding

Arsenal have trading in last season’s explosive style for a more controlled one, suffocating games with a dominant defense that has given the opposition not so much as a sniff at goal. The match on Tuesday against Luton saw a very un-Arsenal performance by this season’s standard, as the Gunners gave up three relatively avoidable goals to the newly-promoted side, the most they have given up in a single match all season. The defense did not cover themselves in glory on set pieces, but keeper David Raya also put in a shift to forget, flapping helplessly at the second corner and letting in a goal that was shot directly underneath him. Statistically, it was an aberration, but that doesn’t make it any less ominous.

The Gunners cannot afford to be as lax against Unai Emery’s side, who have won every one of their home matches by no less than two goals. For as lauded as their performances on the season have been, Arsenal will need to refocus and show their mettle on Saturday.

There goes my Hiro

As I mentioned in the Luton Town preview, I took Mikel Arteta’s optimistic comments on Takehiro Tomiyasu’s sub against Wolves with a massive grain of salt due to the defender’s unfortunate history of calf injuries and Arteta’s trademark ambiguity with injuries. Lo and behold, Arteta revealed after Tuesday’s match that scans were not good, with the do-it-all defender now set to miss the remainder of the December fixtures with a calf injury.

While Arsenal have a healthy Ben White to man the right flank, they now face a depth issue in the defense. Arsenal are down to five healthy first team defenders (six if you count Cedric, which I in good conscience cannot) and have now lost their most tactically flexible defender. It’s not a crisis, but it is becoming crisis adjacent, as Arteta has stated that Arsenal will be looking to sign a defender in the January window.

Bargain Shopping

My goodness, what a player Declan Rice is. With every match that passes, the once-eye-watering transfer fee for Declan Rice keeps looking more and more like the Gunners robbed West Ham blind. From his unceasing work rate to his leadership to his clutch impact on matches, he has shown everything and more this season, his performance at Luton the epitome of his influence on Arsenal’s success. As many other commentators and bloggers have mentioned, the fact that his price tag is never brought up is a testament to just how successfully the beginning of his Arsenal career has gone.

If we are to get anything out of Saturday’s match, it is almost certain that Rice will have made an impact on that, whether defensively, offensively, or both. He is simply astonishing.

This match may not have all of the historical pomp of two PL blue bloods duking it out in a tense storied derby, but this may just be the most crucial match for the Gunners all season. With how Villa has played, leaving with anything more than a point would be a huge boon. If the Gunners can get it done without their manager on the touchline, it further becomes a chance to throw down the marker and let the rest of the PL know that they are the team to beat for this year’s title.

WHAT: Arsenal at Aston Villa
WHEN: Saturday, December 9th, 12:30pm EST/9:30am PST/5:30pm GMT
WHERE: Villa Park
HOW TO WATCH: Broadcast live on NBC. Streaming live on Peacock.

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