Boy, February sure has not been kind to Arsenal. Three matches have rendered one point and a paltry single goal from open play, and a once-sizeable points gap has disappeared, with Arsenal not on top of the Premier League table for the first time since September. It would be frustrating by any season’s standard, but it feels particularly deflating considering Arsenal’s historic start.
There isn’t any one particular thing that has gone horribly wrong. Rather, it has been death by a thousand paper cuts. Through three matches, Arsenal have never looked out and out awful, but they have looked well off the mark. The results have been frustrating, but the quality of play hasn’t been shockingly poor by any stretch, they just simply look...off.
Wednesday’s performance was the culmination of those thousand paper cuts. In what could have been Arsenal’s statement match, the Gunners fell flat, undone by a handful of critical errors that proved fatal. A dominant first half had Arsenal on the front foot, even forcing City into time wasting tactics. But for as dominant as the first half was, the second was equally as tepid, and Arsenal’s once-palpable lead in the table was eradicated over the course of 90 minutes.
It was easy to think that the sky was falling after Wednesday. That loss was a bitter pill to swallow. Despite the result, it’s hard to forget that, for the first half of the season, Arsenal were not just good - they were excellent. Historically so. While the level of play that Arsenal achieved was in some ways as unsustainable as it was enjoyable, the fact remains that the Gunners aren’t dead and buried. 16 league matches and a Europa League knockout stage remain, with everything still left to play for.
Winning cures all ills, and the Gunners now set their sights on a familiar face, as they hit the road for a Saturday morning tilt with Aston Villa and former Arsenal boss Unai Emery.
The first match this season against a Steven Gerrard-led Villa saw the Gunners take all three points in a cagey affair at the Emirates. The Gunners took the lead in the first through Gabriel Jesus before Villa equalized on a controversial corner late in the second half. In what was a hallmark of early-season Arsenal, the Gunners wasted no time responding as Gabriel Martinelli put away the winner just minutes after the home side conceded.
Arsenal will face a different manager in the second tie, as they will with several of the league’s struggling sides. Gerrard’s tenure lasted less than a year before he was unceremoniously canned in October. Villa’s decision to replace him with Emery raised some eyebrows, though. Emery’s lack of success at Arsenal was partly attributed to his inability to communicate in English, which makes a second stint in the PL a surprise move. It’s even more surprising considering his recent successes in La Liga, guiding Villarreal to a Europa League title in 2020 while knocking off Arsenal in the semis.
Despite his previous issues in the PL, Emery has started off his Villa tenure with a decent bit of success, having won five of his first nine matches. Much like Arsenal, though, their last victory came back in late January, having lost their last two matches against Leicester City and Manchester City. With both sides desperate to break out of their poor form, there is little reason to expect Villa to be anything but sharp for this one.
The match is a short turnaround for Arsenal, which begs the question - does Arteta change anything in hopes of rediscovering a winning form? He has largely stuck to his guns, but a third poor outing and a three day rest may force some necessary changes. Plenty have wondered about the prospect of Leandro Trossard supplanting Martinelli on the wing, with the Brazilian in a bit of a funk at the moment. Likewise, with Thomas Partey missing Wednesday’s match with a thigh issue, is he fit for this, or does Arteta continue resting him after Jorginho’s impressive performance against City? Does Emile Smith Rowe even exist at this point, or has he become a metaphysical concept stuck within a liminal void?
For more discussions about potential line-ups and score predictions, check out Nathan’s post.
No matter the lineup, Arsenal, like Villa, will be desperate for a win. They have everything to play for - pride, points, and momentum. A win puts the Gunners back into the hunt and washes some of the awful taste of February out of their mouths. I fully expect them to come out of the gates swinging, especially with the gap between them and City effectively shut. They can’t afford not to, honestly. The title race is now neck and neck. Maybe a little heat is what Arsenal needs to get them going.
WHAT: Arsenal at Aston Villa
WHERE: Villa Park, Birmingham
WHEN: Saturday, February 18th, 7:30am EST/4:30am PST/12:30pm BST
HOW TO WATCH: Live on the USA Network and streaming on NBCSports.com
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