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Arsenal at Aston Villa: facing an old “friend”

The Gunners face a surging Aston Villa side.


You can forgive people who didn’t immediately circle today’s Aston Villa - Arsenal contest as a marquee matchup when the schedule was released. But that’s exactly what we’ve got, albeit without Mikel Arteta on the bench for Arsenal. Arteta received a yellow card in the celebration of the late winner at Luton Town, his third of the season, meaning he’s suspended for today’s match.

The Gunners entered the weekend top of the table. Aston Villa were third, having leapfrogged Manchester City by virtue of a convincing 1-0 win — 22 shot attempts for Villa, just 2 for City. Liverpool have temporarily moved into first with their win over Crystal Palace.

Aston Villa have made Villa Park a fortress. Unai Emery’s men have won 14 consecutive home games in the Premier League. A streak that dates back to...a 4-2 loss to Arsenal in February. The Gunners scored twice in added time to take all three points. Until the midweek craziness at Luton Town, Arsenal were incredibly stingy away from home conceding just three goals and keeping four clean sheets.

Arsenal’s Premier League leading defense will have their hands full with Aston Villa’s third-best attack, on goals scored. Ollie Watkins is the dangerman — his 14 goal involvements are third best in the Premier League, behind Erling Haaland and Mo Salah. Watkins has scored four goals in six matches against Arsenal, too. Douglas Luiz, who has been linked with a January move to North London, has been excellent this season, notching seven goal contributions in the league.

Defensively, Aston Villa play a high line and frequently catch opponents offside. But they’ve got the second-worst defense among the “top” clubs in terms of goals conceded. So far this season, Arsenal have feasted on teams that haven’t set their defensive line deeper, ripping them apart with quick-moving, direct attacks. The Gunners’ attack finally seems to be clicking now that Gabriel Jesus and Martin Ødegaard are fully healthy and able to link up with Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. That quartet may have also unlocked Kai Havertz, who has three goals in his last four appearances.

Arsenal have to avoid beating themselves today. David Raya made two errors leading to Luton Town goals that nearly had the Gunners drop points against one of the worst teams in the Premier League. Indeed if you look at the goals Mikel Arteta’s side have conceded and the points they’ve dropped, most are on the back of Arsenal mistakes rather than opposing brilliance. The Gunners suffocate their opposition, denying them time and space in the middle third and dictating the tempo of matches. So long as Arsenal don’t let the match turn into a track meet, I fancy their chances at Villa Park.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Unai Emery used to manage Arsenal. I’ve mostly memory-holed those 18 months.

WHAT: Arsenal at Aston Villa
WHERE: Villa Park
WHEN: Saturday, December 9th 9:30 am PT | 12:30 pm ET | 6:30 pm BT

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Arsenal - Raya, Zinchenko, Gabriel, Saliba, White, Rice, Havertz, Ødegaard, Martinelli, Saka, Jesus

Aston Villa - Martinez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Pau, Digne, McGinn, Kamara, Douglas Luiz, Tielemans, Bailey, Watkins