As Arsenal get ready to take the field against Manchester City, let me start by simply saying, welcome back to football and happy day to all my fellow Gooners, Gunners, and Arsenal fans alike.
Today’s match up, interestingly, comes a day after Arsenal’s boss, Mikel Arteta made a pretty hardline, intense statement of his intent that will have resonated deeply with Arsenal supporters across the world.
“If we stand still that gap will become bigger and bigger. I haven’t come here to accept that.”
He added, “The challenge for us is to improve the players we already have and find ways to improve the squad in the right positions to give us the best possible chance to compete at that level. It’s getting higher and higher every year.”
“The plans I had [for the summer] obviously wasn’t considering the coronavirus and all the side effects that has, but we know what we have to do to improve the team.”
It’s a clear statement of intent to the board, the fans, and the players – Mikel Arteta wants to compete, and he wants others to compete with him. To the board, find your pennies anyway you can and make some purchases. He hears the fans pleas for a team that is competitive and doesn’t settle for 9th place with the chance at a late run to make something happen.
It’s a well-timed statement, as all of Arsenal prepares to go up against not only Arteta’s old club, but one of the major clubs in the Premier League capable of showing all exactly how large of a “gap” Arsenal face.
Let’s take a look at today’s match.
Last time out
Earlier this season, Arsenal trotted out to take on Manchester City at the Emirates when they might as well have just stayed sat in the dressing room. The game was over within the first 15 minutes after the Gunners conceded twice. Once in the second minute, and in the fifteenth minute, and from then on Unai Emery’s side, led by Freddie Ljungberg after Emery’s dismissal, was left trying to chase the game. When they finished the half by conceding a third in the fortieth minutes to go down 3-0 before the half it wrapped things up and was a clear sign that Arsenal would go down with a whimper rather than a roar.
The second half was a matter of going through the motions, seeing out the clock, and a demonstration of what strong teams do in games when they are firmly in control and have a comfortable 3 goal lead. One can hardly blame Ljungberg for the outcome given the complete lack of support he got while he was the interim manager, but we can look a little bit at what happened.
To put it simply, Kevin De Bruyne happened. It felt a lot like the second half of the Europa League final from the previous game where Eden Hazard took complete control of the game and dominated Arsenal for 45 minutes. From then on, Rodri and the much stronger City midfield simply controlled 58% of the ball and left with an easy win.
I think it’s easy for people to say, “Arsenal lost the game in the midfield”, and they did, but that is also where Manchester City and Pep teams win games. I think you may be hard pressed to find many teams that lose to City and don’t feel as though they lost the game in the midfield. The fact is, a team can come in with whatever game plan, tactics, or secret weapons they want – when you concede in the second minute of a game and again thirteen minutes later, your game plan has gone out the window and you are left to try to adjust and claw your way back into the match.
Thoughts on this time around
To start with, we will see a vastly different side. Between a new manager, with different people establishing themselves, and less injuries – the Arsenal will look very different.
Last time’s starting lineup: Leno, Maitland-Niles, Chambers, Sokratis, Kolasinac, Guendouzi, Torreira, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang, Martinelli.
In looking back, that lineup may be a little bit shocking and the cynic in me chuckles saying, “well that’s why we lost so handily.”
City’s first goal came on a lengthy run through the middle of the park that essentially saw no one make a tackle. At that point, they put it to the endline and it was a slot back and top notch finish from De Bruyne that put them up. It looked like a training drill that City have done thousands of times under the Pep reign notorious for repetition in training and it paid dividends early. The second goal came off an Arsenal turnover. To Arsenal’s credit, they lose the ball and attempt to immediately press and get the ball back. City just break down the slightly inharmonious press and effectively countered the way they are capable of.
Under Arteta and with the handful of different tactical changes, I imagine things may be slightly different. The amount of space in the midfield that City had to gallop through on the first goal as the dribbler quickly burned past Ozil while Gunedouzi and Torriera were completely disconnected is something Arteta doesn’t have in his side. I imagine we will see a midfield with more cohesion, more connection with the front three’s pressing efforts and a midfield looking to corral and trap City while ushering them away from danger areas.
There are a lot of question marks around the starting lineup this time around and for good reason. For the first time in a while, Arsenal have almost everyone completely healthy and there has been such a large gap, that there is little precedent set for “recent lineup success”. We could go back to Arsenal’s last game against West Ham for a look, but that game didn’t go well, despite the 1-0 win. Arsenal had moments where the West Ham side gashed through our midfield and defense, they just didn’t convert any of their four golden opportunities. As mentioned before, there also were injuries to players like Kieran Tierney and a slowly returning Hector Bellerin that led to alterations.
Predictions for today
I know it comes across and a bit boring or covering myself, but I should say that today’s predictions are a relative crapshoot. We have not seen a full game from Arsenal in three months, we don’t know how the compact schedule will affect Arteta’s plans, and we don’t yet know how he will use and extra two substitutions in his favor. It very well may mean we see a lineup to begin with whose job it is to steady the ship and weather the opening storm that City like to open games with, allowing subs to come in later and change the dynamic or we may see Arteta start with a more experienced, less experimental side.
My guess: Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Luiz, Tierney, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pepe
I will start by saying: 1) There are a handful of tricky spots like who to play next to Xhaka, will he immediately test the 4-3-3 we have seen appear in friendlies? 2) Does he fall back on experience, fitness, technical ability, familiarity? What priorities does Arteta place highest? 3) This is not necessarily a lineup I would like to seem but one I think we could
I believe he will fall back on the central defending duo of Luiz and Mustafi that have yielded Arteta some success and offer passing abilities from the back to skip lines and launch attacks and counters given a midfield that may be overrun at times. I believe we will see a Tierney given very defensive responsibilities in an attempt to be present and allow the midfield to stay in the midfield and expand their coverage without needing to supply support to Saka as they have in the past.
I chose Guendouzi mostly for workrate and defensive abilities to cause a bit of chaos in the midfield and look to close down space when players like Rodri are on the ball in unison with some efforts from Ozil who will have to supply workrate today. The third midfielder was an interesting selection. I opted for Ozil mostly because of experience and Arteta’s favor for the German, although I expect whoever starts in that role to be swapped at some point – earlier rather than later.
It’s for similar reasons that my front three is Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe. I believe he will want Lacazette organizing the press and looking for that front three’s raw talent combined with what Ozil is hypothetically capable of creating to lead counters.
There are some variables that should be noted – Xhaka did not play in either friendly which raises a lot of questions around his fitness as well as players like Reiss Nelson that may be used to offer defensive workrate.
In the end, I think Arteta will opt for a much less experimental lineup than people may think.
We will see in due time!