Before every Arsenal fixture, we’ll bring you a Scouting Report on the Gunners’ next opponents.
Arsène Wenger's side welcome Aston Villa to Emirates Stadium for the first Premier League game of the season on Saturday, so to find out more we asked tactical expert Michael Cox and journalist Mat Kendrick for their views.
Aston Villa struggled during Paul Lambert’s first season as manager but, even when the results were poor, it was obvious that Lambert was attempting to build something impressive in the long-term, and his second season in charge should see Villa improve on last season’s finish of 15th.
Villa actually gave Arsenal a couple of very strong tests last season, with a goalless draw at Villa Park followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat at the Emirates, thanks to two Santi Cazorla goals.
Villa were particularly impressive in the former contest, with Lambert ordering his players to allow Arsenal time on the ball in defence, but to press immediately and intensely once the ball was played into midfield.
Arsenal’s midfielders were forced into simple return passes back to the centre backs, and struggled to work the ball forward. The primary job for Lambert’s most advanced midfielder this afternoon might be about closing down.
Having experimented with a 3-5-2 system last season, which seemed to cause Villa problems down the flanks, Lambert eventually turned stuck to a 4-2-3-1 system.
Only Stoke’s Peter Crouch won more aerial duels than Benteke last season, but while he’s excellent in the air, he’s also good technically and makes excellent runsMichael Cox
Arguably their strongest area is the attack, where Belgian Christian Benteke proved one of the signings of last season, notching 19 goals in just 32 starts. Only Stoke’s Peter Crouch won more aerial duels than Benteke last season, but while he’s excellent in the air, he’s also good technically and makes excellent runs.
Benteke’s power is complemented nicely by the sheer pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, who start on the flanks and motor forward on the counter-attack. Villa are unlikely to record more than 35 per cent of possession at the Emirates, and as Arsenal push the full backs on, these two will attempt to sprint in behind when Villa win the ball.
Lambert regularly chopped and changed his three central midfielders last season, but Ashley Westwood improved as the season continued, and became one of the club’s star performers. Expect him to play deep alongside Barry Bannan or Fabian Delph, with a more energetic player at the top of the midfield trio, pressing and helping to connect midfield and attack.
Villa’s weakness last season was at the back, despite goalkeeper Brad Guzan enjoying an impressive campaign. Only relegated duo Reading and Wigan conceded more goals than Villa, with constant positional errors from inexperienced defenders often to blame, although things improved once captain Ron Vlaar returned from injury for the run-in.
Meanwhile left back Joe Bennett and, in particular, right back Matthew Lowton both improved considerably throughout their debut Premier League seasons.
Lambert’s summer singings are intriguing: Ivorian-born Danish centre back Jores Okore isn’t the tallest, but is extremely powerful and combative, while Spaniard Antonio Luna is a talented, technical left back.
Those two should strengthen the defence, the energetic Dutchman Leandro Bacuna and the creative, two-footed Aleksandar Tonev give more depth in midfield, while 6 foot 5 Dane Nicklas Helenius is an obvious Benteke back-up.
Villa could be a considerable force this season - but with so many new signings, and Lambert building for the long-term, facing them on the opening day might suit Arsenal.
MAT KENDRICK, BIRMINGHAM MAIL
I think there's more optimism around than there has been for several seasons. It's the first season since 2010 that Villa aren't looking for a new manager so there is a bit more stability there. Paul Lambert has done most of his business early in the summer. He's signed six new players, all under the age of 23. He's continuing this policy of trying to draft in players with a point to prove in the Premier League. Keeping Christian Benteke was a very important piece of business as well. He was the talisman that kept them up last season. There is optimism there but that's kept checked a bit by the fact that they've got Arsenal away, Chelsea away and Liverpool at home in the first week of the season.
I think there will be goals. The attacking quality that Villa have got with Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann [means] they'll score goals against most teams in the divisionMat Kendrick
The fans have felt the pain in the last couple of years. It wasn't so long ago that Villa were knocking on the door of the Champions League under Martin O'Neill. I think most fans realised that it was hard for a club like Villa to sustain the money that was being spent without getting into the Champions League. I think they realised that they have to take a different route. I think most fans are excited about the direction they're going in. There's something quite pure about going Villa's way. They have spent big even after O'Neill left and it hasn't really got them anywhere. I think people are strapping themselves in and enjoying the ride. They know that they've got honest young players who are learning the game and doing their best to kick Villa on.
People were wondering if Benteke would go or stay and there was the transfer request which upset a lot of people. The fact that Paul Lambert managed to convince him to change his mind within a day of returning to pre-season training nipped in the bud any ill feeling the fans had over the transfer request. He's such an important player. He scored 19 goals in the Premier League and four in the cups last season. He either scored or created 48 per cent of Villa's goals last season which shows how important he is. I think Arsenal were one of seven teams that he didn't score against last season so I'm sure he'll be trying to address that at the Emirates on Saturday.
I think there will be goals. The attacking quality that Villa have got with Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann [means] they'll score goals against most teams in the division. I don't think the defence is a massive Achilles heel but it does still need tidying up. I think it will be 2-2 and most Villa fans would be happy with avoiding defeat on the first day of the season.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source