It’s not often that we see a big game where neither side is really on top of their game. Arsenal have started the season grinding out a few results on the basis of hard work, mentality, and the likes, qualities that should never be the primary strengths of a team. Wenger doesn’t know his best starting eleven at the moment as he tries to find a place for Jack. The Gunners have been ponderous in possession, ineffective in front of goal, and error prone at the back.
The win against City in the Charity Shield game has been the high point of the new season. Pellegrini’s side never came close to their best in that game and have gone through the opening fixtures without quite finding their top gear. The win against Liverpool in the title race six-pointer was useful in terms of points and showcased glimpses of their quality. There were enough moments though, when you could see their defence barely hanging on. And the most prolific attack from last season doesn’t look quite as menacing at the moment.
Pellegrini hasn’t tweaked the system around in any noteworthy manner. Their current problems are mainly down to individual form, injuries, and player availability. Yaya Toure, irrespective of the reason one may want to ascribe, just doesn’t seem like the beast that he was last season. Aguero is just coming back to full fitness and was rendered ineffective by a deep-lying Stoke defence. With Jovetic and Fernando injured, Negredo sold, and three big games within a week, the Chilean will have a tough task rotating his squad while maintaining the balance between attack and defence.
Both teams would be justified in thinking this game is there for the taking. On the other hand, neither would want to lose and thus could focus on keeping things tight. The games between these sides at the Emirates in the last few years have tended to be of the latter type. Only 5 goals have been scored in the last five meetings between the clubs at Arsenal’s new stadium. Three of those battles ended in a stalemate.
Since both sides are primarily attack minded and possess excellent offensive potential, the battle for midfield control will be very important. It’ll be vital to minimize the number of times the attacking players can run at the defensive line or play in the spaces between the lines. Slowing down transitions by applying pressure at the point of loss of possession, low-risk passing in the centre of the pitch, and carefully controlled spacing between the players will help protect the goal, and help the high defensive lines get back into more secure deeper positions before they are called into action.
Debuchy’s aggressive positioning and Mertesacker’s lack of speed will give the visitors some opportunities to build attacks down Arsenal’s right. It’s hard to imagine space won’t exist so the next best option is to limit passing into and from that space. If Kolarov and Demichelis start, Arsenal should also have some interesting attacking opportunities on that flank. Silva won’t track Debuchy consistently either. City usually make up for that by limiting quick passing options. I recommend keeping an eye on how often spaces appear on that flank and the frequency with which either team is able to exploit them purposefully.
Welbeck’s pace and movement should also pose a tough challenge to the City defence if they try to stay high up the pitch.
It’ll be interesting to see if Pellegrini sticks to his two-striker approach. City are visiting Bayern in midweek and have another Premier League six-pointer against Chelsea next weekend. Will he risk both Aguero and Dzeko given the paucity (!) of alternatives. It’d be a bold move, and would also show great trust in his midfield and system of play as they’ll be a man short. Does the Chilean trust his tactics and the players’ ability to sustain a tempo to such a degree that he’d risk exposing his defence. It’s a gamble worth taking based on Arsenal’s current form in my opinion.
Wenger has some decisions of his own to make. I would really like to see Özil moved back to the centre. This line-up seems the most natural one at the moment –
Szczesny – Debuchy, Mertsacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Alexis, Welbeck, Cazorla
Moving Sanchez to the left and bringing Wilshere in on the right is an interesting option as discussed before the previous game. I’m not sure Wenger is even considering that at the moment.
There are a few other tweaks to the starting eleven available and the manager’s current favourite – Wilshere and Ramsey in the centre – add to the possibilities.
Both teams have an opportunity to kick start their season, albeit belatedly. I find it hard to assess how teams will come out and perform this early in a new campaign, particularly after an international break. The one that can raise it’s level by a couple of notches should end the day on a happier note.Follow @goonerdesi