In what has turned out to be one of the Premier League’s most competitive starts to a season fans have enjoyed some incredible attacking football. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City have all exhibited not only fantastic attacking team movements but also possess an abundance of individual attacking talent. This weekend sees a meeting of third and fourth placed Arsenal and Manchester City in a match that both teams can’t afford to lose. Chelsea have established the league’s pace and are comfortably sitting 6 and 7 points above Arsenal and City respectively. If either of these teams is going to continue to stay on Chelsea’s heels they’ll need to dispatch their fellow competitors. We’re going to have a look at these two teams and the prospect of what should be a goal-filled match with more than just three points on the line.
Both teams have star-studded squads but share glaring deficits in key areas, mainly in defence – while they’ve got slick and lethal forwards that are in great goal-scoring form.
Manchester City’s current league position can almost exclusively be attributed down to their lacklustre defensive personnel as well as Guardiola’s characteristic disdain for focusing too much on the defensive side of the game. He’s got some selection quirks, like playing Kolarov at centre back when he’s a full back by trade, that makes it even more difficult for his defence to perform consistently. Additionally, Vincent Kompany is an injury absentee which puts pressure on the young John Stones and rash Nicolas Otamendi to punch above their weight. Arsenal also has Mustafi out injured, but their defence has been a little more settled lately and their players are playing in their correct positions. Hector Bellerin in particular has been in fine form both defensively and in offense. In terms of balance, Arsenal will feel slightly better about the prospect of their defence, primarily because their options aren’t ageing and being played out of position.
The similarities between the teams continue into midfield. Both teams play a quick, possession-based game and are known for having midfields full of talented passers. On City’s side David Silva, Fernandinho, and De Bruyne have all been instrumental in their quick attacking build-ups, the same applying to Arsenal with Ozil, Xhaka and Sanchez. Both have also recently begun employing midfield enforces to back up their attacking talent, and particular attention will be on Granit Xhaka as he’ll face the biggest defensive challenge of his Arsenal career trying to track the likes of De Bruyne and Silva to cut off their passing space. It’s difficult to call which team has the advantage in this area, but the victory will likely go to the team that outworks the opposition in terms of possession turnover.
Now here is where the entertainment value will be provided. Considering the leaky defence on both sides, but the exceptional attacks, this game could prove to have a relatively high score-line. Arsenal is the second highest scoring team in the league on 37 goals, while City sits on 34. Each team has a star man in their attacking line-up that, however, only Arsenal has their MVP available this weekend. After his violent tackle on David Luiz Sergio Aguero was given a 3-match suspension. Aguero is City’s leading scorer and for several seasons has led their attack brilliantly, but they’ll need to do without his services at the weekend. Arsenal, on the other hand, will undoubtedly have Alexis Sanchez in their line-up and hoping he can continue his prolific chance-conversion rate. Sanchez is currently tied for top scorer with Chelsea’s Diego Costa, and it’s his pace and trickery that’s likely to swing the game in Arsenal’s favour against City’s haphazard defence. A lot of pressure will be on whichever player starts up front for City, likely to be either Kelechi Iheanacho or Raheem Sterling, as neither are centre forwards in the same mould as Aguero and don’t have his predatory instincts.
Alexis Sanchez vs. Kolarov/Stones/Clichy: On his day Sanchez can run circles around the best defenders in the world. City’s defence is lacking cohesion and confidence after a shock 4-2 dismantling by Leicester this past weekend. Sanchez is in exceptional form at the moment and will feel confident about putting City’s sketchy defence on the back foot. He’s faster than each of their full backs and tends to leave centre-backs in his wake even on his off days. City may need to dedicate one of their midfielders to tracking Sanchez and doubling up with a full back to eliminate space for Sanchez to operate in.
Hector Bellerin vs. Raheem Sterling/Jesus Navas: Bellerin is apparently Arsenal’s fastest playing, and the Spanish fullback has been enjoying good form lately but has also recently suffered an injury. An injury to Mustafi forced him on as a sub in Arsenal’s loss to Everton on Wednesday. Both players will need to track each other vigilantly and a little more pressure will fall on Sterling to cover Bellerin’s marauding runs down the wing, if Sterling is selected. Guardiola may have to consider selecting a more defensively minded player like Navas on Bellerin’s side in order to try and neutralise Bellerin’s inclination to participate in Arsenal’s attacks.
Granit Xhaka vs. Fernandinho: Both of these defensive midfielders are fiery characters with often-shaky disciplinary records. Considering both teams play possession-based games it will be crucial for these two to win the ball back as quickly as possible for their respective teams, but also puts them at risk of committing fouls rather often. The player that comes out on top between these two is likely to secure more possession for his side and will likely allow that team to create more chances to convert. Both are disciplinary risks with red cards in them, so they’ll need to keep cool heads as any red cards would put their teams at disadvantage not only in this game but for the congested December period as a whole.
Although both teams have gifted forwards and it could end up being a 5-goal thriller, considering that neither team will want to lose the match it could deteriorate into a tactical chess-match where neither side commits too much into attack. Despite that possibility Arsenal’s current form from defence through to attack is superior to City’s, and have a far shakier prospect of defending against Arsenal’s attacks. Although a draw doesn’t really do either of the sides any good, they may fear going all out in order to secure a victory.