Arsenal travel up to Villa for the first of many games over the traditionally congested Christmas period. We’ll unfortunately be doing so without Kieran Gibbs, who has had a setback and was sent to a specialist yesterday. A quick Google revealed to me that Kieran is 22, which came as a bit of a shock to say the least. Certainly I still had him down as the nineteen year old kid who was excellent in the Carling Cup ties in 2008-09. Unfortunately since then, he’s racked up little game time and has often been injured when the senior left back is out, such as has happened here.
Gibbs showed plenty of promise in his earlier years, but it remains to be seen how much he will have kicked on since then, given his well-documented injuries woes. Young players improve by training and playing games, and since 2008-09, Gibbs has missed many opportunities to do both because of his injuries. Unfortunately for him and us, it remains to be seen whether he will manage to overcome his persistent woes and fulfil his potential.
From Arsenal’s point of view, it is a difficult situation. Our first choice left back is out for another couple of months at least, and even if his understudy does return soon, it is debateable whether he can be relied on to perform week in, week out for a couple of months. Whether Arsenal invest in another leftback to provide additional depth (maybe an Eboue type who could cover both fullback positions, and also be used higher up the pitch to shore up a result as games wind down?) depends on whether Gibbs is intrinsically “injury prone” or whether he is just having a LOT of bad luck.
Onto the game at hand now, however. Villa were dire against a Liverpool side who aren’t fantastic themselves, so a traditionally tricky fixture in the Martin O’Neill games may not pose as much difficulty as history would suggest. For Villa, Agbonlahor is back in the mix, but Bent and Heskey are out. The big loss for Arsenal is Alex Song, who has a one game ban after accumulating five bookings to date this season. Djourou is also missing, which stretches a defence that was already at breaking point.
Defensively, there are a few options to deal with this latest setback. We could (and probably will) go:
Koscielny Mertesacker Vermaelen Miquel
The problem with that is that it entails moving Koscielny away from the centre, where he has been superb. The flip side is that Vermaelen moves back into the middle, but we lose out at leftback with a rookie centreback playing out of position. To be fair to Miquel, I thought he did OK against City, so with Villa fairly weak offensively he should be ok. I do wonder what has happened to Squillaci, though. If the Frenchman came in at centreback, we could leave Vermaelen at leftback. If Miquel starts in order to put Vermaelen in the middle, it would be a fairly telling statement in regards to Squillaci’s position in the pecking order.
Koscielny Mertesacker Vermaelen Miquel
Walcott Van Persie Gervinho
Arteta is one booking away from a ban, but with an out of sorts Wolves side due to come to the Emirates next, it wouldn’t be a disaster if Arteta got booked in this tie.
Frimpong comes in for Song in a like for like change. My main concern with this line up is the dependence on the attackers to, well, attack. We’ll have virtually nothing being offered from fullback. While Koscielny is decent on the ball and a good passer, with our forwards often cutting inside we need width from our fullbacks, too. Miquel will be in a similar boat. At least he is a left footer, so can put the crosses in on his strongest foot, but how effectively he can do so I’m not sure. In addition, Song is a cracking player offensively, and while Frimpong will come in and shore us up defensively, our midfield will lack a little bit of offensive bite. Perhaps we’ll shuffle the shape slightly, and give Arteta more leeway to get forward, and use Frimpong as a dedicated holding player. That’s what I’d do.
Given that then, my concern would be if Villa opt to park the bus, we may struggle to break them down. That said, defensive organisation has not been a strong point this season for them, a point which their previous game versus Liverpool drilled home. Instead McLeish will probably have them primed to kick the living hell out of us. Hopefully we respond like that Christmas game away at Birmingham last season and score three. Realistically however, I’d take a 1-0 to the Arsenal. Hopefully Van Persie gets in and can continue his race for the top scorer in a calendar year record, alongside Arsenal’s hunt for the top four.