City vs Arsenal: The Premier League returns, but will Arteta's principles?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
We're back! After over 3 months without the sport and club will all love so dearly, Premier League football finally returns this Wednesday night as we travel to Manchester to take on Pep Guardiola's City side. This'll be our first taste of experiencing Arsenal behind closed doors, and our first glance at how the player's have coped during lockdown and how sharp they are physically.
As I said in our preview podcast ahead of this game, the return of football does feel like something of a formality. It feels like a process we have to get done, for a number of different reasons, before we can experience the real product we let go of. I'm extremely curious to discover how emotionally invested I still am with it, whether a goal will be met with the same joy as it was prior to this situation or a defeat will be met with the same agony. Not just because of the position we find ourselves in, in terms of effectively having nothing to play for in the league, but because of everything that has happened in the world in the last few months.
The game itself is a really interesting one to kick off with. There's the whole Pep-Arteta, master vs apprentice element to it, and this just heightens the already interesting tactical element to the game. How can we overcome such a good City side, that have clearly shown signs of weakness this campaign?
With City losing to bitter rivals United in their final game prior to the abrupt halt, they will be fired up and there is pressure on them to respond to such a poor result, whereas there is a lack of expectation on our side to come away with anything. This could well give Arteta a bit of freedom to experiment or push his side to express themselves offensively, but realistically I think a little bit of pragmatism is needed in a bit of a ‘damage limitation’ game.
City are by far and away the most creative team in the league, and preventing them from creating high quality chances is not going to be easy. Their game at United was the first time they’ve failed to register an xG above 1 in the league this season, and just the second time that they’ve had an inferior xG to their opponent.
United sat in a low block and prevented City from utilising the combinations between their two wide players and two eights in the half spaces- the area in which they create most of their chances. If we are to replicate this, it’s imperative we switch to a 4-3-3, with two of the midfield three covering these half spaces.
However, adapting to the qualities of the opposition is not something we’ve seen Arteta do very often in his short managerial career, and against his coaching mentor I definitely don’t expect this to change. I do expect him to stick to his favoured shape and structure, and he’ll want his side to impose themselves on City- not a tactic that worked for Chelsea earlier this season when Frank Lampard’s side became the only team this season to have more possession than City in a league game. Chelsea lost 2-1.
Arteta has relentlessly expressed his desire to recreate an identity around the football club, and while logically a little more pragmatism in this game may increase our chances of getting something, I can't say I wouldn't admire him sticking by his principles and trying to develop this expansive style and system further.
As for our line-up, I'd expect Arteta to stick with his 4-2-3-1 system and structure, but personally I think a slight adaptation is key for us to come away with anything. We haven't had any team news as of yet, so I'm going to assume everyone but Chambers, Cedric and Torreira are available. In goal, Leno will inevitably retain his place, with Bellerin and Tierney likely to start as our first-choice full-backs from here on in.
At the heart of our defence, David Luiz seems to be an ever present member, so he'll start, but who is alongside him will be interesting. Arteta will likely opt for Mustafi or Mari, but for me I'd slightly unpopularly opt with Sokratis. Mustafi feels like a minute away from another catastrophic error, and I wouldn't risk him in a game like this. Mari's lack of pace and agility could see him exposed against City's dynamic forwards, so personally I'd go for Sokratis, in a game where distribution from our defenders is not going to be a huge feature.
In midfield is where I'd make a notable change. Mesut Ozil's defensive deficiencies are potentially going to leave us extremely vulnerable against a superb offensive outfit, so I'd personally bring Guendouzi in to accompany Ceballos and Xhaka in a flat three. A conservative decision yes, and one I don't expect Arteta to make, but for me it's a sensible one. City use two eights to attack the half spaces, and a 4-3-3 allows us to counter this a lot more easily.
As for the front three, whilst there's an argument to be made to go for Aubameyang down the middle with a pacey winger on the left, with a counter-attacking game plan put in place, I think if Arteta is going to attempt to implement his possession based philosophy on this game, he must opt for Lacazette, to provide us with a focal point- someone to play off.
Man City: Ederson, Walker, Otamendi, Laporte , Mendy, Rodri, Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Aguero, Sterling
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Luiz, Tierney, Xhaka, Ceballos, Ozil, Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Prediction: Man City 3-1 Arsenal