Aston Villa vs Arsenal: Do we accept seventh place is probably out of reach?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
After an exhausting week full of mostly ups and a traumatic down (don't need to go into more detail), we begin this new week with our penultimate Premier League game against very different opposition. Aston Villa sit 18th, in dire need of points in their attempt to avoid an immediate return to the Championship. They will be fired up for this game, fighting for their lives, so just because we've pulled off miraculous results against the league's best, do not expect to turn up at Villa park and roll Dean Smith's men over.
For ourselves, it's difficult to assess how we should approach this game. On the one hand, the possibility of Sheffield United or Wolves slipping up in their final two games is plausible, but you wouldn't quite hedge your bets on it, given their remaining fixtures and the amount of points they both need to drop, meanwhile, the prospect of us winning the FA Cup final seems more likely than us leapfrogging a handful of teams into seventh. Do we go all out to get maximum points from these two games, playing our strongest possible team in both, or do we take a slightly more cautious approach, resting certain players in both to avoid injury for that potentially huge showdown with Chelsea?
It wouldn't surprise you to hear me sit somewhat on the fence. Our squad is certainly deep enough to rotate and still beat both Villa and Watford, and given the fixture congestion and intense displays we put in last week, this game in particular will require significant rotation. Having said that, we might as well push for maximum points in these two games, as you never know what could happen in our direct rivals remaining encounters. Seventh is certainly unlikely, but not completely unattainable. It'd be nice to go into that Final with the feeling that it is indeed a final and not a European qualifier.
We could also use these games as something of a scouting mission. Last week I compared our potential rebuilding project to what Klopp has done at Liverpool, and that ties in nicely to this game (or these two games). The German's net spend was very minimal in his first summer window following his arrival on Merseyside, opting to scower the Premier League's lesser clubs for talent at a premium price. Their most notable signings in the summer of 2016 were from relegated Newcastle in Gini Wijnaldum and Southampton in Sadio Mane. The latter was their most expensive acquisition that window at £34 million. The following season they were able to regain their place in the Champions League, which in turn significantly increased their budget to improve their squad, which led to the more high profile signings of Mo Salah, Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. Given our likely limited financial powers in the upcoming market, adopting a similar model of recruiting players from relegation threatened sides could be an effective policy.
Though this Villa side aren't blessed with a plethora of talent capable of performing at this level, it may be worth watching out for some gems. The obvious name is talisman Jack Grealish, who looks all but certain to leave the Midlands club this summer. Whilst certainly not my first choice option for a player in this role we so desperately need to strengthen, if Villa go down, his price may drop significantly, so it may be worth exploring that option. There's no doubt Grealish may see this as something of an audition, as he looks to plant himself firmly in the shop window.
There aren't any other obvious players in our opponents side to look out for. Many may be calling for Tyrone Mings, but personally I don't share this admiration for a player who has made more errors leading to goals than anyone else in the league this season. It's best to avoid signing defenders from the league's worst defence. The only other area of any real strength in Villa's side is their double pivot of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn. Both may be cheap players to bolster the depth in an area of our squad lacking said, although neither are at the level we'd ideally want. Perhaps this segment of the preview would've been more suited to Sunday's opponents Watford, who have a squad filled with talented individuals, but to be fair what else was I going to write about?
As for our line-up, I'd expect a little bit of rotation following our exhausting victories over Liverpool and City in the last few days. Emi Martinez will retain his place in goal, whilst Rob Holding is likely to come into our back three, given Shkodran Mustafi has been ruled out after sustaining an injury at Wembley. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney will complete what looks like a much more settled back three.
I expect rotation in the wing-back areas, given the energy required in these roles and the extent of the congestion in our fixture list. On the right, Cedric Soares is back from being cup tied, so he may well replace Hector Bellerin, whilst Bukayo Saka is completely fresh following a rest against City, so he should return on the left. Naturally, I would have advocated for rotation in our double pivot, but considering the only real alternative is Lucas Torreira, I think maintaining the more creative options in a game like this through Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos is the best way to approach this game.
As for the front three, with Eddie Nketiah finally back from his suspension, he should replace Alex Lacazette, who needs a rest having started in all of our last three games. Reiss Nelson may rotate back in for Nicolas Pepe, whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will retain his place on the left of the three.
My Line-up: Martinez, Holding, Luiz, Tierney, Cedric, Xhaka, Ceballos, Saka, Nelson, Nketiah, Aubameyang.
Prediction: Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal