Premier League Tactical Preview: Arsenal vs Manchester City


TEAM NEWS

Arsenal will be without the usual suspects in midfield - Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott - as well as the central defender Laurent Koscielny, the victim of a shin injury picked up in last Saturday's shambles at Chelsea. Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be available, though, nether suspended after Gibbs was sent off for Oxlade-Chamberlain's red card at Stamford Bridge. Micah Richards and Matija Nastasic are definitely out for Manchester City and although Sergio Aguero could be back from his hamstring injuries, a place on the bench is probably the best he can hope for.

 

LAST TIME

In hindsight, City's 6-3 victory over Arsenal at the Etihad looks like the first in a triptych of Arsenal capitulations against the other title challengers, but it didn't really feel like that at the time.

Although City always had the edge, it had seemed a tight game until Fernandinho put City 3-1 up after 50 minutes - and even then Walcott reduced the deficit to one before Jesus Navas made it 4-2 three minutes later. Although they ultimately looked frail at the back - after Koscielny had gone off after 42 minutes with the score at 2-1 - this was at least a game in which Arsenal competed. Given how impressive City's pressing was from the off on Tuesday and how – as Jose Mourinho gleefully pointed out - Arsenal struggle against sides who prevent them building from the back, though, it may not be such an even contest on Saturday.

 

KOSCIELNY'S ABSENCE

Koscielny's partnership with Per Mertesacker has been one of the undoubted successes of Arsenal's season so far. There have been 24 league games this season in which the pair have played at last 45 minutes in tandem, and of those, Arsenal have won 16, drawn 4 and lost 4, conceding 24 goals (which includes the 6-0 defeat at Chelsea when Koscielny went off at half-time with the score at 4-0) and keeping 11 clean sheets. With a different pairing for more than half the game, Arsenal have played 7, won 3, drawn 2 and lost 2 (which includes the

6-3 defeat at City), conceding 12 goals and keeping just one clean sheet, in the goalless draw against Chelsea on December 23. It's always dangerous to read too much into one incident, but Wilfried Bony's opener for Swansea City in Tuesday's 2-2 draw was the sort of goal Arsenal haven't been conceding this season: would Koscielny have allowed Bony to get a jump in front of him as Thomas Vermaelen did?

 

THE FLAMINI MYSTERY

When Arsenal lost 3-1 to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, they struggled to deal with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Fabian Delph running at their centre-backs. The arrival of Mathieu Flamini brought protection, covering that vital central area just in front of the back-line. Yet, mystifyingly, in key recent games - away to Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Chelsea - Arsene Wenger has omitted him, shifting from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla flanking Mikel Arteta. Flamini and the 4-2-3-1 returned against Swansea, and not surprisingly: Arsenal have won 12 and drawn 2 of the 15 league games in which Flamini has played 45 minutes or more this season; without him, they've won 7, drawn 4 and lost 5. He will surely start against City on Saturday.

 

BALANCED AND COMPACT

In his press-conference after Tuesday's 3-0 victory over Manchester United, Manuel Pellegrini kept using two words: City, he said, had found the right "balance" while their play had been "compact". His pride in those two aspects was understandable.

This is a side that has been criticised all seasons for its defensive laxity, but it has just kept five clean sheets in a row in the league for the first time since the Second World War. If a team doesn't play with a true holder in front of the back four - and Fernandinho is not a Makelele-type; at Shakhtar he was the deep-lying midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 who pushed forwards - it can still achieve solidity by restricting the space between the lines. That is clearly something City have worked on and it is paying off.

In the last three games, Pellegrini has abandoned his preference for a strike partnership, which also seems to have added midfield strength. Against Hull he played a 4-3-3 - fortunately, given it mean he could adjust to Vincent Kompany's early dismissal by pushing Javi Garcia into the back four - while against both Fulham and  United, he's used David Silva as a central creator in a 4-2-3-1.

 

VERDICT

Of their last 11 games against other top-four teams (assuming Chelsea, City, Liverpool and Arsenal make up the top four this season), Arsenal have won only one and there's no reason to see that improving, even though they've lost only once at home this season. A comfortable City win seems likely. City are 2.05 to win and 4.00 to score over 2.5 goals, both of which look attractive.