While Arsène Wenger’s mixture of youth and experience at Arsenal has propelled them to the Premier League’s upper echelons, it feels as if Paul Lambert has gone too far in one direction. His Aston Villa team has been filled with so many young, hungry, enthusiastic players that they lack the nous to control games or close out wins.
Even their best player of last season, Christian Benteke, is going through a serious dip of form. He scored twice on the opening day of the season, when Villa won 3-1 at Arsenal, then managed three more goals in August and September, but now he has not scored for nearly four months. He is still Villa’s best player and there is no one else to take the responsibility.
Lambert, though, believes Benteke is close to finding the net again. “I thought against Sunderland [where Villa won 1-0 on New Year’s Day] he was excellent and looked back to himself,” the manager said. “I know people are going on about his goalscoring, but that will come. He’s just having a spell where maybe last year the two headers against Sheffield United would have gone in. At least the lad’s in there to try and score.” A Benteke goal against Arsenal tonight could, Lambert hopes, trigger a good run of form over the second half of the season. “I think he needs a goal, but you’re hoping that for this match – big team and big players he’s up against – he’ll raise his game.”
Villa have the second-worst home record in the Premier League – two wins from 10 – but that might change on Monday night. “I’d love to give the home fans something to shout about. It’s our home place, we’ve got to try and win,” Lambert said.
Wenger, meanwhile, has shown this season he does not mind putting pressure to win on his young players. Not if he thinks they can handle it as well as Serge Gnabry.
The 18-year-old was thrown into his first North London derby last Saturday and handled it perfectly. Now, with Theo Walcott out for the rest of the season, there will be more opportunities on the right wing, and Wenger believes the German can handle it. Not that the Premier League is the extent of the expectation for Gnabry in 2014. When asked whether there was a “small chance” that he might, with a run of good games, break into Joachim Löw’s squad for the World Cup, Wenger did not demur. “There is more than a small chance,” he said. “There is a big chance.”
The gifted Gnabry was the best player in Arsenal’s under-21 side last season. He has already started four first-team games this season, and scored his first goal in the 2-1 win at Swansea in September.
He is punchy and explosive, with a burst of pace and a ferocious shot when he cuts inside.
“We are looking at a guy who has good individual talent,” Wenger said. “He can pass people, is a good finisher, and has a very good football brain with good vision. He has great pace, two-footed, can finish right and left. He has a lot in the locker.”
With no Walcott there might be a lack of pace and width in this Arsenal team, of players who can run in behind and stretch the play, or deliver crosses. Wenger, though, is not worried: “[Alex Oxlade-] Chamberlain, [Lukas] Podolski and Gnabry can create that width that we need.”
They will be needed to supply Olivier Giroud, who, after a fortnight without a game, should be well rested for this evening. “It is important that he is back,” Wenger said. “He was a bit tired recently but now he is refreshed, he is back, and I am sure he will have a major impact on the second part of the season.”
Giroud played 26 of Arsenal’s first 29 games but should be refreshed for a busy run of games. “I was always there thinking, ‘I have to rest him, I have to rest him, I have to rest him.’ Then I almost changed my mind. He is always ready for a fight, even when he is tired.”