After three straight draws in the Premier League and a comprehensive defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, Arsenal sorely need to get back to winning days when they visit in-form Aston Villa on Saturday. While some plaudits were earned for fight backs against Everton and Manchester City, a chastening night in Dortmund exposed many of the same problems that Arsenal encountered on the road last season. Yet Wenger, who has switched to a 4-1-4-1 formation this campaign, has insisted that he is striving to find the right balance between attack and defense.
“Not a lot has changed,” he said in his press conference on Friday. “We failed in some big games last year and behind that is the thinking that we have to be more solid in some games. We conceded too many goals in the big games last year. We have to find the balance, we added a striker with [Alexis] Sánchez, we have another striker with [Danny] Welbeck. We have a lot of offensive players with [Mesut] Özil, with [Jack] Wilshere, with Ramsey, even [Mikel] Arteta when he plays is initially an offensive player. So we have to find a balance between attacking and defending and that’s why it’s not an easy subject.”
That balance will be even harder to find in the wake of Arsenal’s already thin defensive options being further stretched by injuries. Mathieu Debuchy went off with an ankle injury in the 2-2 draw against Manchester City last week, with Arsenal set to learn the full extent of the problem on Friday evening when he has a further scan. If the news is good and the France right-back doesn’t require surgery he will still be out for six weeks, if surgery is needed he will face three months on the sidelines.
Nacho Monreal, meanwhile, will again miss out with a back problem. Better news comes from Calum Chambers having recovered from tonsillitis and, after deputizing at center-back earlier in the season, the 19-year-old is now set to fill Debuchy’s boots at right-back. It still means, however, that Arsenal have no senior defenders in reserve. In midfield Arsenal’s options have been boosted by a return to fitness of Mathieu Flamini. Wilshere is also available after it turned out that his ankle injury suffered in Dortmund wasn’t as serious as first feared.
Not only is the trip to Villa Park an important match for Arsenal thanks to their need to get back to winning ways, but also because Aston Villa have begun the season so strongly. Seen by many as relegation candidates at the start of the year, Villa have taken 10 points from a possible 12 to make the decision to hire Roy Keane as assistant to manager Paul Lambert look like a stroke of genius. After two seasons of struggling near the wrong end of the table as the club cut costs and Lambert relied on inexperienced players, the Villa boss believes his young squad has now matured.
“We certainly have a threat with the legs, speed and energy that we have got,” he said, reports Aston Villa’s official website. “The way we are playing has been excellent since the start of the season. I think what's happening is that the young lads that were playing had to leave that young tag and walk up and go and be men. They've done that and, allied to the lads that have come back into the frame, the new lads that have joined the football club, it's been a collective massive upsurge. They're performing really well.”
Defender Ron Vlaar remains a doubt with a calf injury, meaning Nathan Baker could again deputize. Christian Benteke, who scored three goals in two games against Arsenal last season, is still sidelined.
Prediction: Aston Villa have made an impressive start to the season, yet it is far too early to tell whether the team is significantly improved. Under Lambert they continue to be well organized, but with their only real offensive threat coming from their pace on the counter attack. That means they can often look poor against opposition that doesn’t attack them, as they did against Newcastle earlier this season. But against the better teams that have an onus to go forward -- like Arsenal -- Villa can be a real threat. And Arsenal can certainly struggle against quick-breaking teams, as they showed again in Dortmund. Of course Arsenal also have the quality to open up a Villa defense that has been solid so far, but with former Gunner Philippe Senderos at its heart, has an error in it. Still, it could ultimately be another frustrating afternoon for Wenger’s side.
Aston Villa 1-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra