Arsenal travel to Aston Villa on Saturday in desperate need of three points to keep them in the hunt for a European berth in the Premier League.
The outlook heading to Birmingham could’ve been distinctly brighter were it not for the quintessentially Arsenal-like implosion that took place 12 miles up the road. The best (half) performance of the season somehow resulted in defeat.
Mikel Arteta’s side should not have lost that game, which makes the defeat slightly more palpable as those are precisely the matches this club tends to relinquish their stranglehold of. Well, we say that, but various controversies and topics of debate make it tough to swallow regardless.
What better way to lay that result to bed than to win the next game. It isn’t just any ‘next game’ either, it’s Aston Villa on their own turf. A side that put Arsenal to the sword in devastating fashion in the return fixture. Running out 3-0 winners was the least the Villans deserved, just as it was the least Arsenal were worthy of.
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Arsenal vs Aston Villa: 3 key clashes ahead of Premier League showdown
Dean Smith’s men have won just two of their last six Premier League outings, most recently being cut apart by this season’s surprise package West Ham and the relentlessly infuriating Jesse Lingard.
Both sides have strong cores in midfield with brawn and brains in equal measure, boast similar-ish defensive records and can just as easily put three past a side as they can concede in numbers.
There will be some interesting individual battles across the pitch. Spirit and fight are two things that can’t be unaccounted for in the pair – Arsenal’s dogged attitude a more recent development – thus the scraps dotted about across the park may clinch victory one way or another.
Here are three key battles to look out for at Villa Park on Saturday lunchtime.
Nicolas Pepe vs Matty Cash
Pre-match premonitions such as assuming who will play can be risky angles to take, yet on this occasion it would be an almighty surprise to see Nicolas Pepe not start his fourth consecutive Premier League match.
Arteta spoke in the build-up about playing those ‘in form’, a nod towards Pepe’s chances over the returning Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and with Bukayo Saka on the opposite flank, the Ivorian can continue on the left.
If he does (the reasons for him doing so are clear), then it will be an absorbing tussle with Matty Cash. Coming from Nottingham Forest in the summer, the winger-turned-right-back has been one of the standout performers in his position this season.
This sequence of three matches is the best trio of displays fans have seen of Pepe in the Premier League consecutively. Why he has suddenly bucked up his ideas is a blend of his own improvements coupled with a more cohesive team performance that plays to his strengths. We talk about Alexandre Lacazette being a confidence player and Pepe can be catergorised likewise.
Now that he is firing, moving better with and without the ball and beating his man with more fluid regularity, he has to contend with an equally adept one-on-one opponent. Notable over recent outings is that the side is shifting better as a unit to create the space for the 25-year-old to isolate his defender. Full of self-belief, he can finally evade his man.
Expect a handful of battles with success balanced in either individuals’ favour.