With attention switching back to the Premier League following a fruitful sojourn in the FA Cup, Arsenal go into this weekend’s game against Aston Villa seeking a win to cement their recent run of good form.
Worryingly for the Gunners, it appears they will have to contest the tie without the mercurial talents of Alexis Sánchez. The brilliant Chilean is suffering from a hamstring strain and Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger seemed to hint, when facing the press on Thursday, that regardless of whether Sanchez comes through a late fitness test on the eve of the game, he may not be risked against Villa. That would probably constitute the most sensible approach, considering that the Gunners face a gruelling schedule commencing with the north London derby against Spurs a week from Saturday, which will see them play roughly every three days until the UEFA Champions League encounter against Monaco in about a month’s time.
Sanchez’s absence will no doubt necessitate some tactical re-jigging to ensure that the gunners maintain their attacking threat in the absence of the Chilean’s speed, industry and invention.
The lack of other attacking options like the still recovering Danny Welbeck means that Wenger will essentially be left with the choice of either sticking with the 4-2-3-1 deployed against Brighton or adopting a slight modification to that approach and adopting a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Considering that Villa are expected to come to the Emirates with a game plan that seeks to defend deep and spring the occasional counter attack, the second option will likely be preferred.
The likes of Santi Cazorla, Daniel Ospina and Per Mertesacker are all expected to return to the starting line-up after enjoying a well deserved rest for the FA cup tie. With that in mind, the gunners’ starting line-up is most likely going to look something like this image.
What this formation does is ensure that Arsenal have the numbers and the technical ability in midfield to exert a stranglehold on possession whilst playing the majority of the game in the Villa half. However, the Gunners have to be extremely wary of the Villains ability to play on the counter.
Of paramount importance if Arsenal are to succeed is the need to keep Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann relatively quiet by starving them of service. Any failure to do this will see Wenger’s men susceptible to quick counter attacks as this duo have shown themselves more than capable of hurting premiership opposition especially in utilising offensive transitions.
How well Bellerin and Gibbs (or whoever occupies the full back berths) do, will hence be crucial to ensuring that the Gunners come away with all three points. This is because they will be expected to join in when Arsenal press high up the pitch and provide width in attack whilst not neglecting their defensive duties in tracking the Villa wide men when the Gunners are constrained to defend.
The other crucial factor that will be necessary to ensure a good performance will be how well the pair of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil dovetail together. This is because Özil is unlikely to occupy a strict position on the wing and will in all probability frequently swap positions with Cazorla in the middle of the park. There’s certainly no reason why it should not work, as Özil’s clever movement and spatial awareness are not attributes that could be considered incompatible with Cazorla’s creativity and technical ability in congested areas.
Given Sanchez’s importance to the Gunners’ season so far he will undoubtedly be missed. However, the availability of Theo Walcott should soften the blow as the Englishman’s performance against Brighton suggested that he is attaining a semblance of form after his long injury lay-off. In the end however, a good team performance, more than the reliance on exceptional individuals is what is required if Arsenal are to sustain their recent run of winning results and position themselves firmly on the path towards securing another top four finish.