Paul Merson believes Aston Villa will become Premier League title contenders if they beat Arsenal at home on Saturday, live on Sky Sports.
Villa defeated treble winners Manchester City at home on Wednesday to move third and extend their winning run at home in the league to 14 matches.
Unai Emery’s side face leaders Arsenal this weekend and Merson has given his thoughts ahead of the crunch Saturday Night Football clash at Villa Park.
‘If Villa beat Arsenal then they’re in the title race’
This is a massive football match. It could have such a big impact on the Premier League title race.
If Aston Villa can go and back up their win over Man City and beat Arsenal, defeating the winners and runners-up from last season in four days, you have to give them a chance.
I know their form away from home isn’t great but when you have an unbelievable record like they have at Villa Park, if you can sort out your performances on the road you will win the league.
A defeat is not the end of the world either. You’d still say they are one of the favourites for the top four, but a win and you have to put them in the mix for the title.
A game too far for Villa?
On the other hand, this is also a huge test for Arsenal. It’s a massive game for them. If they can go and get a win at Villa Park and end the unbelievable home record, you will have to put Arsenal as the No 1 favourite for the Premier League.
I worry for Villa in this game. It could just be a game too far. A lot of work went into that win over Manchester City. Arsenal also have an extra day’s rest and that makes a huge difference.
‘Every Villa player knows exactly what he is doing’
I haven’t seen any team do what Aston Villa did to Manchester City, though. Of course, we’ve seen City lose football matches. Every team does. However, the manner of the defeat to Villa, I’ve never seen anyone do that to them. It was phenomenal.
There was one part of the game where they had about 15 consecutive shots on goal.
I love the tempo with which they play. The way they got around the City players, closing them down and then once they win the ball back they break very quickly. They’ve got great pace in Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins.
Unai Emery’s got them working really well as a team and all the players know their roles. They all know what they need to be doing.
I watched Manchester United on Wednesday and they squeezed Chelsea. Everyone went and all the players did their job. If you have one or two players who don’t do their job, you get absolutely ripped to shreds, especially at Villa Park on a big football pitch.
What I like is they all know when to close down and they do it in a pack, and when they win the ball back they break with unbelievable pace.
‘Rice vital to Arsenal’s chances’
Rodri was a huge miss for Manchester City at Villa Park. When he’s missing it’s like having the best car but not putting the right fuel in. If he’s not there, you take a lot away from City.
For me, that highlights the importance of Declan Rice in this game on Saturday. They paid top dollar for him, and he has taken them to a new level.
Rice gets on the ball and starts everything off for Arsenal and if they can break the lines, which City failed to do, then Villa are in trouble.
City didn’t have that experienced holding midfield player just to take that extra touch or make that simple pass. They gave the ball away far too easily.
Rice won’t do that. He’ll play the simple pass and can easily break the lines. If he can regularly do that, getting the ball to Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka waiting on the wings, then it will be a major problem for Villa.
‘Raya looks a bag of nerves’
With what Arteta was saying after the Luton game where he said they don’t talk about mistakes following the two blunders from David Raya, there’s no doubt in my mind that he sticks with the Spanish goalkeeper.
Raya has got more chance of playing than Declan Rice. He just won’t lose his place now because Arteta brought him in to do a job. If Ramsdale came back now he’d be in for the foreseeable future.
I can’t see that happening. The situation won’t change. However, Raya looks nervous. The team looks nervous at the back but they have got away with it so far. It is not a nice watch.
‘Havertz won’t let Arsenal down’
I have always said Kai Havertz is a top player. He’s top draw. I don’t think he is playing in the right position. He’s being asked to play somewhere he is not familiar with.
But he won’t let Arsenal down. He’s too good a player for that. This is another big test for him, but I think Arteta has to stick with Havertz alongside Rice and Odegaard.
Arsenal will have to try and keep hold of the football at Villa Park. City couldn’t do it and that is where they got punished time after time.
I’d be shocked if Arteta went for a Jorginho over Havertz on Saturday. Villa are too quick and move the ball too quickly around a big Villa Park pitch.
I’m a big fan of Jorginho but I think it would be difficult for him against the pace and energy Aston Villa have. He is also someone who slows the game down a lot, and I don’t think Arsenal need to do that on Saturday.
They need to get through the lines very quickly, otherwise Villa will suffocate them.
‘Sleeping giant Villa have awoken’
It’s a phenomenal football club. They are a sleeping giant in my opinion. There’s been a lot of people waiting for it to wake up and they have now.
It’s really hard over 38 games because the league doesn’t really start until eight games to go. At the moment, everyone is just trying to stay in position and get in the pack.
When the last eight games come it is completely different. We saw that with Arsenal last season. The pressure just ramps up but what Villa are doing at the moment is out of this world. They are a good football team with good players who all work hard for each other.
The fact I think this game could go either way this weekend is a big compliment to Aston Villa.
‘So much excitement and drama in PL this season’
This season the football in the Premier League has been outstanding. There’s been so much excitement and drama already and goals.
It may be because there are a couple of lesser teams in there and they have been letting in a load of goals, but they are also having a go as well.
Fair play to them. The likes of Sheffield United, Burnley and Luton, and of course Everton as well after their points deduction, but none of those teams go and set up with 10 at the back.
They all have a go. They all try and play on the front foot to win a football match and I have a lot of respect for that. They don’t just want to try and nick a draw and that’s why the league is so exciting.
There’s also so much good attacking play from players and the finishing is just so good.
Watching Manchester Utd vs Chelsea on Wednesday, if that had finished 10-6 there would have been no complaints. It was just an unbelievable football game, and you could have mistaken it for pre-season or a testimonial at times. It was end-to-end stuff.
Can Arsenal win the league?
As a neutral, if you want a thrilling title race, I think you’d want Arsenal to win this game. If Arsenal lose and Manchester City beat Luton, the gap is three points again.
But if it’s a win for the Gunners on Saturday then you have to take notice. They will be six points ahead of City and both teams would have played at Villa.
City are also chasing two teams down in Arsenal and Liverpool, which is difficult. It’s a lot easier to just chase one down.
So, for a neutral, an Arsenal win would be really good for the title race long-term. However, if you want the excitement of here and now, and potentially five or six teams in the mix for the next month or so, then a Villa win would be what you want.
But realistically, looking at things over 38 games, Arsenal look like contenders.
Watch Aston Villa vs Arsenal on Saturday Night Football, live on Sky Sports from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm