Even those living under a rock must know this is the Premier League’s biggest game this season, and it comes at such a fascinating time for both teams. League leaders Arsenal will go 8 points clear with a win and a game in hand – whilst a win for Manchester City will leapfrog them into first place for the first time in this title race. Neither team can afford to lose.
Two weeks ago, Arsenal were high flying and playing some of their best football with a resolute defensive away victory at Spurs and a dramatic, injury-time winner at home against United. City however lacked sharpness in closing out games, and were rocked by the news of the Premier League’s investigation of their finances. Since then, Arsenal have wobbled slightly after a frustrating defeat at Goodison and a lacklustre draw at home to Brentford. City are hardly back to their usual selves, as shown in their 1-0 loss to Spurs last week but a comprehensive first half performance against Villa (with the game already won by half time) means Pep’s men might just have that extra bit of spring in their step going into this game.
Arteta, for the first time this season is tasked with a selection issue, and he would have rathered any opposition than City to make it against. Fans have been concerned about Martinelli’s recent form. It’s clearly not a big picture issue with the player looking to be suffering slightly from fatigue – a reasonable repercussion of having no alternative until very recently. Trossard was brought in to be competition for the starting XI, not just rotation. The Belgian has proven his quality when called upon, including opening his Arsenal account on Saturday against Brentford. The goal was typical Arsenal winger play, with a one-two between Odegaard and Saka enabling the Englishman to skin his man and fizz a ball in for his opposite winger to tap into an empty net. Martinelli, so often on the end of these crosses, had just been substituted and fortunately for Arteta, Trossard was there to execute it all the same. This will fill the manager and fans with confidence that should he rotate, the quality will not drop. It also offers Arteta a brilliant option if he finds the game balanced with 30 to go.
Exhilarating danger-man Bukayo Saka will look to continue his brilliant form this season, and get in behind Nathan Ake who I expect to start at left back. Critics might point out how quiet he was against City in the FA Cup recently, with Ake awarded MOTM (heavily influenced by the game-winning goal) but Saka was never out of 2nd gear. Don’t be surprised if Pep follows his typical big game patterns and throws Rico Lewis in at left-back or radically changes the shape of the back line. Saka however, is playing with a fearlessness and output that will mean Pep should have to accommodate him, rather than the other way round – as might have been in previous fixtures between these sides. Saka has 7 goals and 8 assists in the league this season.
For this new-look City, the threats are multi-faceted. Erling Haaland is ruthless and regardless of the on-going debate about if he has “improved” City, the objective goal-scoring stats cannot and will not be overlooked by Arteta. With De Bruyne now seemingly re-inducted in the team, I expect lots of early, long balls both in the air and on the ground in between the two centre halves as frequently as possible, putting lots of early pressure on the Arsenal pairing. Arsenal play a high line, something Man City aren’t often faced with, and when they have done, Haaland has been at his deadly best (early season goals against West Ham and Crystal Palace spring to mind). Haaland will look to antagonise and draw fouls. For City, the earlier Saliba or Gabriel get booked the better.
Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish are expected to start out wide, and do just that – stay wide. Neither have the pace to burn past people as previous City wingers have done, but they are highly technically proficient. Mahrez’s close control and first touch makes him a constant threat when the ball is switched quickly across-field, and Grealish has an elite and infuriating knack for winning fouls (2.7 per game, including a penalty on Sunday). Mahrez in particular will look to exploit the space vacated by the midfield-focused Zinchenko, something City will be very familiar with.
Whilst both teams have strayed from their scintillating best, this game might just prove to reignite their footballing quality. For Arsenal, playing against a team willing to press and meet them higher up the pitch than the low-block they’ve faced against Everton and Brentford will afford creative wizards Odegaard and Saka chances. Likewise, if De Bruyne and Rodri are afforded space and time on the ball, or quickly turn over possession with free passing lanes in the central channel, Haaland will be licking his lips. Thomas Partey’s positioning will be imperative, and he must have a near fault-less display to prevent that space behind the back line being exploited. Thankfully for Arsenal, Haaland will predominantly want the ball on his left foot, meaning the bulk of his duels will come against Saliba. It’s a heavyweight battle both sets of fans will be eager to see unfold.
This will be a combative, front-footed, technical affair. Both team’s key players will look to control the midfield and play the final pass early and instinctively. This is not a game for hesitation on the ball. Liverpool were the first team this season to show how double marking Haaland out of the game and a press-hungry midfield closing down the supply line, nullifies City. Not much should be drawn of the FA Cup fixture a few weeks ago, but Holding’s air-tight marking was interesting and effective, despite his yellow card.
I expect the game to be tight, and low scoring. A few weeks ago most Arsenal fans would’ve taken a draw quite happily, but with the slight shift in points these last few weeks that feels as though it’s advantage City, especially with the return leg at the Etihad to be played. Should Arsenal win, it might be the first time this season the world finally acknowledges their genuine title threat. Should they lose, it’ll be all the rival fans scuttling out from their rocks to poke fun at the title being ‘bottled’. Ignore the hype whatever the result. It’s one game at a time. COYG!
Arsenal Predicted Starting XI
White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko
Odegaard – Partey – Xhaka
Saka – Nketiah – Trossard
Manchester City Starting XI
Walker – Laporte – Akanji – Ake
De Bruyne – Rodri – Gundogan
Mahrez – Haaland – Grealish