There was a gut-punchingly high degree of ridiculousness about our defeat at Wolves on Tuesday night.
Another red card for David Luiz, albeit for the tiniest accidental contact with a Wolves player; the subsequent ‘double jeopardy’ of both a penalty and a red card; Bernd Leno’s brain fart; Moutinho scoring a once-a-season screamer… well, you know the story.
Today I expect us to get back to winning ways at Aston Villa.
And yes, I know they gave us a sound thrashing when they visited the Emirates earlier in the season, but we were a different team then and so were they.
Since that defeat we have found a new formation, new personnel and we have disinfected the training ground to remove the stale smell of mouldering, unwanted players.
The Villans, meanwhile, have struggled for wins since Christmas. They’ve won just two out of seven and have lost to West Ham, Burnley and the two Manc clubs.
There’s no doubt they are a good team and have some excellent players. At the start of the season I had them down as one of my ‘dark horse’ tips for a potential top four finish. Now they’re one point above us, although they have two games in hand following Covid-related disruption to their fixtures.
Ollie Watkins remains their top scorer (nine goals in the league), but they also pose a scoring threat from midfield with Grealish, Barkley and El Ghazi, who have 14 between them.
But enough about the opposition. What about the Mighty Arse? For almost all the first half at Wolves we played the best football we’ve seen all season. Our forward movement was outstanding, we were solid at the back and the Partey-Xhaka axis in midfield was in complete control. We should perhaps have been two or three up by the time the penalty and red card derailed us. Even with 10 men I think we might have won, but Leno’s mad moment put paid to any hope of that.
The question is, can the players put the freakishness of what happened next out of their minds, write it off as ‘one of those things’ and bounce back to winning ways? I don’t see why not. If I was in their boots I’d feel as if I had been cheated out of three points and would want to make amends as soon as possible.
As part of the fall-out of the Molineux clown show, Leno and Luiz are both unavailable today (serving one-game bans). I know many fans will be unperturbed by the absence of Luiz given his propensity for triggering cataclysmic events (even if he sometimes seems unlucky) but his defensive work has been generally good this season. However, we have good strength-in-depth at CB with Mari and Gabriel.
Missing Leno could be a bigger headache, with our new goalkeeping loanee Mat Ryan having also been out crocked. It could mean another start for Runnarson, who has had a variable beginning to his Arsenal career. He has made some terrible clangers but also seems to be a good shot stopper. It hardly fills this observer with confidence but if he’s going to be the man between the sticks he deserves our full support and best wishes. And the fact that I might previously have suggested we call him Runnarsaurus and make him our new mascot is neither here nor there.
Ryan has been back in training so it’s possible the Aussie will make his Arsenal debut instead if deemed fit enough. Let’s hope our FA Cup hero, Martinez, does not have a blinder for the Villa.
Elsewhere Mari is available again and Kieran Tierney is the only player still in the sick bay. I am glad the club is not rushing back our talismanic fullback – he’s so precious that he probably gets stalked by Gollum.
There are selection headaches for Mikel Arteta up front, with Saka, Aubameyang, Pepe, Martinelli and Lacazette all available, not to mention Nketiah. Pepe was continuing his good recent form in the Wolves game until the red card and scored a terrific goal. He seems to enjoy playing on the left better than the right.
Cedric, meanwhile, has quelled many supporters’ doubts about him and proven to be a solid back-up at either right or left fullback.
Here’s the starting eleven I’m expecting:
Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Cedric
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Smith Rowe – Pepe
Essentially I think (and hope) that El Patron will stick with what’s been working, keeping Pepe and Saka in the wide roles and letting Smith Rowe pull the strings. Partey and Xhaka should be capable of resisting Villa’s dangerous midfield.
We have a full week before our next game so there’s no need to worry about over-playing some of the squad.
This game won’t be easy – Villa are too talented to be a pushover. But if we can get our groove going I fancy that our forward line has more than enough talent and confidence to breach their defence at least twice.
Come on You Gunners.