International breaks are usually annoying, but there was something enjoyable about the last one. Perhaps it was the lack of Arsenal playing awful and ruining people’s weekends, or just the decrease in news stories about the many issues surrounding the club at the moment. The debates over Wenger’s future and what will happen in the summer rumbled on in the background, but the break was a pleasant reprieve; a chance to recharge our batteries before we launch into the final stretch of the season.
Arsenal’s Predicament and Oh No Not Another Big Game
So here we are again, facing Arsenal’s reality. Four defeats from our previous five Premier League games – with the latest coming in a limp and, frankly, farcical performance at West Brom where plane warfare about the ground was more remarkable than our football – has left us lagging behind the chasing pack for a top four finish. We’ve been shoved down to sixth. Even if we win our two games in hand, we’d only be level on points with fourth-placed Liverpool. There’s a lot of work to be done to rescue this season from disaster.
That work begins with Manchester City at the Emirates. Our record against our rivals this season is abysmal, with just the single win over Chelsea so far. Liverpool and Spurs have already come to the Emirates and taken points, and the less said about our away record the better. The numbers say more than enough about struggles against anyone remotely decent:
Arsenal against the Premier League’s top 7 in 2016/17:
8 games played
12 goals scored
16 goals conceded
Yikes. Beating these teams is a tough ask for an Arsenal team in peak form, nevermind one that’s lethargic and out of form. We’re going to have to discover some energy and fight from somewhere to even be competitive in this one.
Manchester City’s Obvious Strengths and Weaknesses
But this shouldn’t be written off as a defeat just yet. Manchester City are not without their own big game troubles. They travelled to Spurs, Liverpool and Everton and lost, each game demonstrating a vulnerability to intense pressing and a tendency for their backline to crumble under serious pressure. These weaknesses were especially apparent in their Champions League tie against Monaco, and their recent 1-1 draw with Liverpool. Arsenal should know how to beat them.
Just looking at their backline should give them hope. John Stones has had a difficult first season and is error prone with and without the ball. His partner seems to change every week. Their full backs are ageing and losing pace. With their emphasis on counter-pressing, there should be opportunities for us to exploit these defenders.
Yet, whatever you think of Pep Guardiola – whether he’s a faux-intellectual hipster being shown up by the English game, or a genius in the midst of turning City into something very special – there’s no denying the potency of his City team. David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are two of the league’s best creators, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane provide frightening pace and penetration on the flanks, and Sergio Aguero remains a danger even if he has lost an edge. They’re a team that create a bucket load of chances each game and have just been lacking a clinical touch. The pace of their play is remarkable at times, and if we aren’t prepared for that we’ll be in for a dizzying experience.
Leroy Sane has been in fine form. Played as a left winger, the German has the pace to beat most full backs and good timing on his out-to-in runs. He’s often on the receiving end of through passes. Bellerin has been off form for a while and City may well target him. On the other side, Monreal has struggled all season with pacey wingers, which will give great encouragement to Raheem Sterling. His end product may still be lacking, but Sterling can and will take players on and pull Arsenal out of shape. With our central midfield struggling, stopping the service to these players will be difficult. It’s crucial that Arsenal do not allow their full backs to be isolated.
The Team News
Arsenal lost Petr Cech against West Brom and hasn’t recovered in time for City, so David Ospina will start in goal and bring all his unpredictability with him. Lucas Perez is out for a few weeks with a thigh injury (not that he would have played anyway).
In brighter news, Arsenal found the long-lost Mesut Ozil behind one of their sofas. He’s in contention to start again, which may see our recent usage of a 4-3-3 come to an end. We’ve missed his creativity, so it’s a welcome boost.
Manchester City are still without long-term absentee Ilkay Gundogan, while Gabriel Jesus’ resurrection is taking longer than expected. Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna are doubts, which could see Fernandinho fielded at right-back.
Ospina; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Welbeck; Alexis
Manchester City (4-1-4-1):
Cabellero; Fernandinho, Stones, Otamendi, Kolarov; Yaya; Sterling, De Bruyne, Silva, Sane; Aguero
The form book suggests it’s going to be another miserable day for Arsenal. History, however, shows that City’s record at the Emirates isn’t great, having only won twice there. Wenger has a decent record against Guardiola at the Emirates, too, with just one defeat against his Bayern team in the Champions League. Recent seasons have shown April to be the time that Arsenal pick up their form and secure a top four finish, so maybe we’ll see that again. I hope we do. I’m practically begging at this point.
I’m expecting an open game with both sides struggling in defence. There’ll be plentiful chances at both ends, however, Arsenal will fail to match City’s energy. City to edge this one 2-1.