In the battle of tactical nous, it was Patrick Vieira who came out on top in the clash between former Arsenal stars at the Emirates on Monday.
Though Vieira’s Palace created little of their own, their set-up allowed them to capitalise on the mistakes of their hosts and, but for a late salvage-job from Alex Lacazette, they would have come away from north London with all three points.
For Mikel Arteta, there can be no repeat on Friday night.
Aston Villa are, arguably, a better side than Vieira’s Palace and further along the road in terms of their own development under Dean Smith. If they are offered up as many gifts as Palace, you can be almost certain there won’t be a way back for the Gunners.
In truth, Monday night probably didn’t teach us much that we didn’t already know of this Arsenal side. They are young, inexperienced and are struggling to bridge the gap between defence and attack. Just as they did last season, sides have quickly clued-in to our weaknesses and are starting to exploit them. While Norwich and Burnley didn’t have the quality to hurt us, Brighton and Palace certainly did and that has to be a worry for Arteta.
If the manager deigns to set up in the same way against Villa on Friday, you can be certain it will be another dour struggle.
The problem seems to be a lack of bodies in midfield and the over-reliance on Thomas Partey to beat the press. As demonstrated in an excellent piece for the Athletic, teams are fast becoming wise to the importance of Partey to our system and, if they press him often enough, eventually they will get exactly what they’re looking for.
In this respect, Granit Xhaka has been a big miss. For all his shortcomings, his presence alongside Partey offers a sort of counter-balance that, so far, Martin Odegaard and Sambi Lokonga have been unable to match. That has to change.
If we are to take three points from Villa, we have to see something different in midfield. And look, risk-taking is a good thing in football, it often comes with high rewards in tight, even-contested matches but if the risks become too risky, too predictable, too often relied on, then things start to backfire.
It doesn’t mean the manager should abandon the system he is trying to implement, but it does mean some tweaks are required. We have a great deal of attacking talent available to us but it will remain under-utilised if we can’t get them on the ball. At the moment, we are simply too slow in getting the ball forward, our movement is laboured and predictable, and our midfield too easy to nullify with a press.
You can sure Smith’s Villains will attempt to do exactly the same to us that both Palace and Brighton have done so successfully and, if we don’t respond, the outcome will be much the same, if not worse.
I’m sure the manager is not blind to all of this but he needs to show now that he flexible too. At the moment, the vast majority are well disposed to the team and to the manager – at least inside the stadium anyway. They want to believe in our talented young squad and they want to see progress being made.
It’s time now to repay that faith with a performance.