Arsenal travel away to the most in-form team in the league on Sunday. Is there any way this won’t be a complete disaster?
The time has come another big away day for Arsenal and, as usual, the feeling of dread is already starting to settle in.
Games against the top six are the furthest from this team’s forte, no matter what form their opponents happen to be in at the time.
A Manchester City team who are unbeaten all season long, scoring goals for fun and playing a very effective and exciting brand of football is scary enough as it is without the long list of humiliations on the road.
Yet, Arsenal are capable of pleasant surprises.
There was much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing before the trip to Stamford Bridge in September, a game many expected us to lose after the 4-0 defeat at Anfield, yet that turned out just fine. Arsenal had a plan for that game and executed it very well. Likewise, Arsenal pulled off two very good defensive displays against City and Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup.
This City side may be much improved since then, but Arsenal’s approach shouldn’t differ that much.
That FA Cup semi-final saw us use a combination of a deep, compact defence and selective pressing up the pitch to slow down City’s passing. Our frontline, plus one of the midfielders, closed down City’s defenders when they tried to build-up from the back, then quickly retreated back into shape whenever the ball got into our half.
While it involved playing much of the game without the ball, it limited the number of chances City could create.
The aim on Sunday should be the same.
To that end, the players must be prepared to work extremely hard to get back into position.
A chronic issue of this Arsenal team is how slowly it defends transitions, with players often jogging back while the oppositions steams up the pitch. As they discovered against Liverpool, doing this in a big game is a sure-fire of getting thrashed.
Arsene Wenger will have to consider if Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are up to the task, or if Alex Iwobi, who played with such discipline against Chelsea, might be better suited.
The other consideration Wenger has make is whether to play with two midfielders or three.
Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey do a good job when playing a tight, disciplined game, but might find themselves outnumbered by City’s midfield trio. Arsenal should be wary of what happened to Chelsea when they played City, and how their midfield were overwhelmed by the clever movement of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva.
This could be a game for the legs of Mohamd Elneny or the tenacity of Francis Coquelin, at the expense of one of the attackers, although both started in the Europa League hinting they won’t start at the Etihad.
It’s a tough call to make, as removing one of the attackers dulls Arsenal as an attacking force.
It’ll be a long and tough game if the team is unable to counter City and have some of the play in their half. Tempting as it would be to commit entirely to defending, sitting deep in your own half would be akin to accepting the inevitable.
City would find a way through eventually.
Whatever team Arsenal put out, success can only be built on discipline and work ethic.
It should go without saying, but they have been missing from Arsenal’s big away days for too long.