This is a tough one to call. Arsenal are very strong at home in the Carling Cup – the last eight games ending in wins with a cumulative score of 23-3. On the other hand, City are probably the only club that can put out a second-string side that would not look far out of place in the Premiership.
For the visitors, Dzeko, Adam Johnson, Nigel De Jong, Kolo Toure, Kolarov, Zabaleta, Savic, and even Hargreaves might get a start. That would give them a decent back four but one that I wouldn’t find daunting if I were an Arsenal attacker. Still the spine will be quite strong and most importantly, Mancini’s men will have excellent quality in front of goal.
Wenger will have to pick a strong defence but with so many injured full-backs the manager has his work cut out. I didn’t see any of the defenders that played against Fulham in the training pictures. That would imply a centre back pairing of Squillaci and Koscielny with a couple of youngsters, quite possibly Miquel and Yennaris, on the flanks. I am not convinced that defence can keep City out, with due respect to their efforts against Bolton, so this could be another goal glut like the visit to Stamford Bridge.
The back five are likely to be shielded by the dynamic yet inexperienced duo of Frimpong and Coquelin. The choice of the four attacking players will determine Arsenal’s ability to compete in this game.
Interestingly, Arshavin was conspicuous by his absence from the training pictures and could be replaced by Gervinho. Chamakh and Park were both in training but I will be surprised if one of the two is not picked as the lone striker. The Korean is likely to pip the Moroccan to that post.
Probable starting eleven,
Fabianski – Yennaris, Squillaci, Koscielny, Miquel – Coquelin, Benayoun, Frimpong – AOC, Park, Gervinho.
Despite the bigger names in the City side, I won’t be surprised if Arsenal match the higher-rated opponents in terms of passing and possession. But that will also depend on Mancini’s midfield. The Italian will have to pick a couple of youngsters if he chooses to leave out the likes of Silva, Yaya Toure, and Nasri. Even Aguero might be on the bench or completely rested along with the suspended duo, Barry and Balotelli.
Such a City side will rely on Adam Johnson for creativity. Dzeko will be a threat in the box and his shooting from distance could test Fabianksi.
For the Gunners, Frimpong and Coquelin will have to produce absolute blinders. Their job description will include helping the full-backs, bringing the ball out from defence under pressure, sweeping in front of the centre of the penalty box, and tracking runs. It’s vital that they keep things simple, avoid mistakes, and not get caught upfield or out of position.
In attack, much is expected of Gervinho. The Ivorian has been in dazzling form, at least as long as he has been running towards the opposition penalty area. He now needs to add an end product to that. Oxlade-Chamberlain will probably find this his toughest start yet in an Arsenal shirt. The youngster will have to link-up with Gervinho and Park while also providing cover against the forward bursts of Kolarov.
Benayoun will have the unenviable task of guiding the youngsters and feeding the attack. It will demand a tireless effort and an impeccable sense of positioning. I’d prefer if he stayed deeper and let one of the wider players cut in from the wings.
Park must ensure he doesn’t cede possession by straying off-side and will have to show a greater understanding with the other attackers. One would also expect a lot of thankless runs from the striker to create space for the others.
When the Gunners do lose the ball in attacking areas they will have to prevent players like Johnson from running into space. Once a winger like Johnson get’s past the full-back, he can stretch the whole defence out of shape. That means the full-back(s), mostly Miquel, will have to limit their attacking runs and take up positions to intercept passes or close the run down. That’s a very tough ask against a quality player and even many seasoned defenders might struggle at it. Another option is to show him the channel and match him for pace while hoping for cover from a midfielder. I am not sure Miquel can do that right now so his best bet is to be intelligent with his positioning and decision making. It should be a fascinating battle.
I expect the result to be determined by Arsenal’s approach to the game. The visitors will have greater bench strength and will be very hard to beat if they take the lead. It could be a high-scoring encounter, and possibly and embarrassing score for the Gunners if Arsene is very adventurous in his tactics. But we could also see a tight game settled by the odd piece of individual skill if Le Boss matches Mancini’s pragmatism.