Arsenal were played off the park by Villa…now they must return the favour

I’m fortunate as an Arsenal fan in that I can’t recall too many times in which I have seen us played off our own park.

I remember Barcelona doing it a few times, Manchester City and Bayern Munich might have done it too, but it’s fair to say that it’s a reassuringly rare occurrence. Whether it’s been Highbury or the Emirates, we’ve almost always put in a good showing. There have been defeats, of course, but rarely a genuine hiding.

That’s why the visit of Aston Villa last November was such a shock to me, a Gooner used to his team at the very least competing, if not dictating, in matches at home. Dean Smith’s side, however, were in no mood to be dictated to that day. In a sparkling 3-0 win, they were everything I thought we were going to be ahead of the match.

Led by Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins, and Ross Barkley, Villa ran the show in midfield. They regained possession at will, found angles we couldn’t account for, and bore down on our goal with a fleet of foot and finesse that I hadn’t seen since Barcelona in 2012.

And while we may have actually beaten Barcelona that memorable night – owing largely to the Catalan’s profligacy – we scarcely laid a glove on the Villains.

At that time, Smith’s side were well on their way up and their exploits since then mean they currently lurk around the upper reaches of the table. But recent weeks have shown that they aren’t as infallible as they were – their most recent match, a 3-1 defeat to West Ham, is testament to that.

Make no mistake, this will be a stiff test for an Arsenal side still in the early stages of evolution, but it shouldn’t be as daunting as it was. Put simply, I don’t expect us to be brushed aside quite so easily as we were last year, not without a fight in any case.

Injuries and suspensions mean, in a lot of ways, Mikel Arteta will be patching holes here and there in the starting XI, but he still has enough quality as his disposal to make a decent fist of things. In-form Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe should give any side pause for thought, while Thomas Partey and Emile Smith Rowe have brought a new dimension to this team in the last month.

And, in a world of fine margins, we’ve also had an extra day’s rest – with Villa competing on Wednesday night to our Tuesday.

As the season begins to build a head of steam, and we hurtle towards the business end, Arsenal will need either to swim ahead or risk treading water. With teams in and around us dropping points regularly, the way is clear for someone to seize the initiative. We can look on our last two results as missed opportunities to do just that but the Villa match is a fresh opportunity to steal a march, one that we can’t pass up if we have aspirations of European football next year.

To do that, though, we will need to be a hell of a lot better this time around than we were in November, when our season begin to disintegrate around our ears as Ollie Watkins and co cashed in. This time, let’s hope we can repay the favour.

Here’s my pre-match preview on YouTube.

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