Going to a ground where the hosts have been undefeated in the last 31 games, winning 29 of those, is always a tough ask. Despite all the off-pitch debate, there’s no doubt Mancini has assembled a stellar squad capable of providing multiple threats while keeping it solid at the back. Their performances and results on the pitch provide clearly visible proof.
Interestingly, the vibes I’ve seen in the media seem to suggest it’s been a weak start for the defending champions. Those for Arsenal have been much more positive. Curiously enough, both teams have the exact same points with the Blues unlucky not to pick all the points against Stoke. The slant in various stories and the perception of some fans has again been affected by expectations. Not many foresaw a strong start from the Gunners, especially after couple of goalless draws in the first two games, so the recent results have brought along a wave of optimism. The hosts started the season as holders and questions are asked every time they drop points.
That said, recent games between the sides, particularly last year when the results over the course of the season were so different, have been gripping but cagey. Both teams have very similar technical styles and the midfields tend to cancel each other out which makes it a tight encounter decided by the player who makes the most of half a chance.
This one could be different though, as both teams are playing much deeper than they’ve done in the last couple of seasons. You probably noticed just how deep and narrow Arsenal were against Montpellier on Tuesday. Even in the two league wins before that there were phases when the Gunners dropped back to the edge of their box and defended with two banks of four.
According to Mancini, City’s defeat against Real in midweek was down to the fact that his side went too deep,
When you score two goals here and are 2-1 you should pay more attention. I saw the [Ronaldo] goal … the mistake was we went too deep, only this. We should have had more courage at this time.
This wasn’t a one-off, the Manchester Blues haven’t been on top of their defensive game this season letting in 10 goals in 6 games. Arsenal can punish teams that are not fully focused at the back.
There is a possibility both teams will take a cautious approach to this game, although the onus is more on the hosts to take the initiative. Wenger’s team’s usually go out to play football but I won’t be surprised if they rely more on counter-attacks in this game.
Mancini’s team selection will also be a factor. He could pick Milner on the right flank along with the more reliable Zabaleta ahead of Maicon, who’s still in the process of settling in at his new team. This could negate Arsenal’s left flank, which has been their major source of creativity and goals.
If the Italian is cautious, he could pick Garcia and Barry in the midfield behind Toure. This would leave the central attacking role and that on the left shared between Tevez and Aguero (Balotelli?). Their combination play, pace, and individual skills on the ball could provide a stern test to Jenkinson and the central defenders.
The hosts could also be more adventurous in midfield and pick an additional skilful player like Silva ahead of one of their defensive players with Toure moving deeper. This would certainly make the game a lot more exciting as they’ll pose a greater creative threat while giving the Gunners a bit more space to attack.
Wenger will also want his side to defend a bit higher than they did against Montpellier. Belhanda and company might not have taken their chances but City will not be as generous. Arsenal will not keep a clean sheet if they spend an entire half or two on the edge of their own box.
For both teams, the midfield’s ability to handle pressure will be vital. It’s interesting that two players, who had virtually identical stats last season, are being used by the managers in different ways. Mancini is pushing Toure higher and higher whenever possible whereas Wenger has pulled Arteta back into a deep-lying role. At some point the two could come up against each other and the result of that battle might decide the game [This is an excellent interview in which Arteta talks about playing against Toure and many other topics].
On the other hand, if Toure plays deeper he’ll have a very similar profile as Diaby. It’d be fascinating to see how both go about influencing the game.
Arsenal will have better balance in midfield if Mancini takes a conservative approach. Silva’s inclusion would make the two sides more even in the centre of the pitch. However, the Gunners will cede that minor but useful advantage if they drop deep and invite pressure.
Both teams have pace and trickery in attack but City have players who’ve done it more consistently in the Premier League. Tevez and Aguero have troubled all defences. Arsenal will have to hope Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott?) put in consistent performances to support Podolski and Cazorla. Giroud also has a lot to prove and it will be interesting to see whether Wenger picks the Frenchman to lead the attack or the Ivorian. I think the pace of Gervinho would be helpful if Arsenal are going to rely on counter-attacks.
Arsene will also have a tough choice to make in goal. I’d continue with Mannone.
Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby – AOC, Gervinho, Podolski.
Depending on the manager’s choice of tactics, Theo might also have been a viable option down the middle but there have been some rumours Arsene won’t start him till he signs a contract.
A bit more rotation would have been helpful but I’m not sure this is the game to make many changes.
A point will be a good result for the Gunners. Three will make a statement.Follow @goonerdesi