The perennial Arsenal injury crisis does at last appear to be clearing. Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil have both made appearances from the bench recently, and Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta and Danny Welbeck could all be back for Sunday’s game. Jack Wilshere is still out as is Mathieu Debuchy after dislocating his shoulder in the win over Stoke City. Manchester City, meanwhile, have no injuries, but will be without Yaya Toure, who is at the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast. Although City have plenty of midfield cover with Fernando, Fernandinho, Frank Lampard and James Milner, they haven’t won without Toure in the league for almost a year. Wilfried Bony, whose signing is likely to be confirmed this week, is also with the Elephants.
The sides met at the Emirates in the fourth game of the season and played out a thoroughly entertaining, very even 2-2 draw. City had more of the ball, but both sides had 15 shots and both hit the post once. Wilshere, who scored Arsenal’s equaliser to make it 1-1, had one of his best games for club, playing in a shuttling role alongside Arteta and Arsenal looked to have won it before Martin Demichelis forced in a late equaliser. The more telling history, though, may be what happened at the Etihad last season, when Arsenal were cut open time and again, losing 6-3, part of their dreadful run away to other members of the top four last season that saw them concede 17 in three games. There’s little sign of an improvement this season: although they only lost 2-0 at Chelsea they were comprehensively outplayed and the 2-2 draw at Liverpool was a desperate game that exposed both sides’ failings.
Even without Toure, City should take control of midfield – as they did at the Emirates. Although Tomas Rosicky played extremely well against Stoke on Sunday, he’s not the sort of player who will give Arsenal the steel and the energy they need to combat City in that area and, without Arteta and Wilshere there’s a danger Arsenal could be over-run. That’s of particular concern because whoever plays at the back of the midfield – presumably either Mathieu Flamini or Francis Coquelin – will have a role to play in preventing Sergio Aguero getting a clear run at Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
Arsenal’s best player by far this season has been Alexis Sanchez, who’s scored 12 and set up seven in the league. The big question for City in trying to stop him is which flank he operates on. If he’s on the Arsenal left, with would presumably mean Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continuing on the right, then his battle with the naturally attacking Pablo Zabaleta will be fascinating. If he plays on the right, which might mean Danny Welbeck returning on the left and Arsenal trying to use their pace on the counter-attack, then he may prosper against Gael Clichy, who hasn’t had a great season so far.
With Debuchy out, Arsenal have a problem at right-back. Calum Chambers presumably comes in, but he has at times looked clumsy this season against opponents who run at him as Samir Nasri surely would. He’s picked up six yellow cards and a red and it’s easy to imagine him either being sent off again or collecting an early yellow that makes him tentative for the rest of the game. With David Silva naturally drifting left, City could make inroads against that Mertesacker/Chambers axis.
CITY’S RECENT FORM
There’s something vaguely mystifying about the fact City are only two points off the top, in a way that should probably encourage them. They haven’t played particularly well for any protracted period this season, often relying on the brilliance of individuals to conjure results from moderate team performances. Although they’re unbeaten in their last 13, their form has dipped again over their last four games: draws against Burnley and Everton and unconvincing wins over Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup and Sunderland. You imagine a run of form will come at some point; the question is whether they’re close enough to Chelsea for it to carry them to the title.
Despite City’s recent indifferent form, and Arsenal’s slight upturn of late, 1.78 looks a very reasonable price for City to win given Arsenal’s struggles away against the best sides. Given the problems Arsenal have at the back of midfield and in the composition of their back four, I’d be tempted to go further and back City -1.5 on the Asian lines at 3.05