The international break is over. Thank the lord. We can get back to playing matches that are actually interesting… and I say that with as much disrespect as possible, Nations League.
I watched highlights from two games, both Ghana, and tuned into Iceland versus Belgium to see Runar Alex Runarsson. Why? I don’t really have a good reason for the Runar watch. Something in me said, “Arsenal backup keeper? Yeah that’s a must watch.” Maybe, I’ll lie to you and say I watched it to keep up my trend of watching Arsenal players we haven’t seen in a Gunners uniform play for their national team.
No good reason, but here we are, back in action. This time continuing our run of tough matchups in October against Manchester City. Arteta v. Pep. Will there ever be a time that narrative doesn’t get driven into the ground? Tough to imagine.
Pep, Arteta. Mentor, mentee. Master, pupil. A coach that has nearly won it all versus a coach that is beginning his journey with his first ever complete season. Arsenal have not beaten Manchester City in their last 9 Premier League matchups (0W, 2D, 7L), and the score lines have not even been close. In the last 7 matchups against Man City, within the Premier League, Arsenal have conceded 3 goals, 6 times and lost 2-0 in the 7th. In these last 9 matchups, the aggregate score is 23-7 (2.55 – .77 GPG).
It’s an ugly run of history to have hanging over a club, but those results were pre-Arteta’s management, pre-giving Arteta a window to make a few changes and work with his side, and pre-FA Cup semifinal that saw Arsenal beat City 2-0 on their way to winning the whole cup. Pep’s side may have dominated the fixture with their 71% of the ball but conceding an early goal to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and then a 2nd in the 71st, to the Gabonese striker once more, saw Arteta’s men take the spoils.
It’s the result that Arteta will have been pointing to during this short week as players returned from international duties to refocus on the Premier League, and it’s the result Arsenal will try to replicate. Interestingly, the two teams come into the match in different places than usual. It’s very early in the year, but Arsenal find themselves in 4th place with 9 points, compared to Manchester City’s 14th place on 4 points.
Finding a way to get points against Pep’s side would be another huge stride for this Arsenal side that is determined to make amends for last year’s horrendous finish. After opening the season with Fulham and West Ham, Arsenal suffered their first defeat to Liverpool before bouncing back with a 3rd win against Sheffield United. They play Manchester City, Leicester, and then Manchester United in their next three. Finding a way to get 3 or 4 points from this run would be huge. Anything extra would be incredible. To do that, they have to do something they haven’t done in the Premier League since 2015.
It’s been one of those seasons, where the drama and excitement revolving around who Arteta will select has been its own storyline. With additions of Willian, Gabriel, Saliba, and Ceballos, extensions of Saka and Aubameyang, or the revitalization of Elneny, Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin; there is always curiosity surrounding the selection. Now, Arsenal have finished their window by sealing their biggest capture yet — Thomas Partey — and people want to not only see him play but see who is partnered around him.
Does he open up the ability to play a 4-3-3? Does he play a holding midfield role or a box-to-box midfield role? Do you start Ceballos, Xhaka, or Elneny alongside him? They are extremely exciting questions to be able to ask ourselves, and the versatility of Partey’s presence will allow Arteta to craft a midfield that fits the tactics for each match. It’s a flexibility that Arsenal’s midfield has not felt like it had since Arsene Wenger left and Unai Emery took over.
Now, we aren’t even sure if Arteta feels like Partey is ready to play yet. He signed for Arsenal on October 5th, but immediately left for international duty. Last we heard, Arteta was responding to probing journalists by saying, “Let’s see. He needs to do a training session today first. We’ll see how he goes in the next 48 hours and then we’ll make a decision as to whether he plays or not.”
Partey is not the only question in the lineup, as one may assume having followed along with this season at all. Kieran Tierney is a huge question mark after his Scottish national team teammate Stuart Armstrong tested positive and Tierney was told he had to quarantine for 14 days. Arsenal have appealed that decision siting proof of Tierney’s social distancing from Armstrong at the point in question and his negative tests. In the last 24 hours, it is believed that appeal was heard and accepted, but in Arteta’s pre-match press conference when asked whether Tierney will be allowed to play, he simply said, “I hope so.”
This is the lineup I would predict if I had to. Leno in net. The same backline we saw against Sheffield United, including the inclusion of Kieran Tierney. A midfield of Saka, Xhaka, Partey, and Bellerin — yes, I do believe we will see Thomas Partey. And a front line of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Willian. Areas of contention I would point out are Saka as the left wingback, the midfield pivot, and Willian as the right winger.
I went with Saka simply because he has been playing really well and offers Arsenal more going forward with the few chances they may get tomorrow. Maitland-Niles has been good, he’s been fine, but as positions get tougher and tougher to hold, with competition in the squad, seeing what Saka offers going forward, tucking centrally, and the fact that he can play defense, makes him hard to remove in my opinion. That does not mean I would be surprised to see Maitland-Niles, given his success last time against City and that he is more defensive than Bukayo.
Willian. Look, I know people want to see Pepe, want to see him succeed, and want him to be a regular part of the side, but there is a reason Arteta put his neck out there and chose to go get Willian. Arteta has made it clear that he would prefer Willian’s contributions to come in the center of the park, but given that Arsenal aren’t playing with any sort of attacking midfielder at this time, I think we will have to get used to see Willian on the field in another capacity. Even with Pepe’s goal last time out, I believe Willian will get the call.
The pivot. Two bits of contention to talk about. One, while I believe that Ceballos should be partnering Partey in the long run, I also believe that relationship is going to be something that grows over time. Since this lineup is being selected after a half-week in London, it would surprise me if that chemistry has taken off. Selecting someone like Xhaka allows Arteta to play Partey alongside a solid, dependable midfielder to ease the volatility of it all. Xhaka in, Dani out, but still believe that will change in time.
The second contention comes more in the form of a variant midfield, and one there is a chance we will see Arteta deploy once more. That lineup sees Partey slide to the left-side of the pivot and Elneny take up the right spot. Elneny offers Arteta predictability, consistency, and the ability to drop in the backline on the right, allowing Gabriel and Luiz to shift one spot to the left when Arsenal have the ball favoring their left feet. By selecting Elneny, Arteta could get this desired shape without having Partey play that role on the right, while subsequently freeing up Thomas Partey to be all over the field making plays in a box-to-box role. It’s not a lineup that will win the hearts of fans, but if it’s selected and it comes off well, it could be a stroke of genius.
I’m sticking to my original selection over this Elneny lineup, but keep eyes peeled should Arteta look to Elneny to help in the back.
I never predict Arsenal to lose. Ever. Which means I’m guaranteed to be wrong about one of my selections at least once a year, besides the year of the Invincibles, but being wrong is not changing my guesses. I would really like to see Arsenal get a point against City and a point away from home, so I predict: 1-1 draw.