Manchester City v Arsenal preview: three key battlegrounds in crunch WSL match

The two teams played out a rather turgid Continental Cup semi-final this week. But will Arsenal be able to come out on top again in the league this afternoon, or will City leapfrog the Gunners in the table? Fresh legs, formation experiments, and winger form will be vital, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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It was supposed to be the showcase fixture that kicked off the Women’s Super League season. But much has changed since Arsenal were supposed to head up to the Academy Stadium and take on Manchester City in September. Rearranged five months later, Arsenal are now without two of their star players in Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead, whilst City look in much more robust shape than they did in those nervous early fixtures.

Regardless, both teams desperately need points from this match. If Arsenal fail to get a victory, it will be their longest winless streak in the WSL since January 2021, where they drew with Reading before losing to Chelsea and Manchester City in succession. Meanwhile Manchester City, who are already five points off the top, need a win to try and keep touch with Champions League qualification.

We got a preview of how this game might play out as the two faced off earlier this week over 120 minutes in the Continental Cup semi-finals. Arsenal eventually came out on top, with Stina Blackstenius scoring their winner in the 93rd minute. So where might the WSL fixture be won and lost?

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Who has fresher legs?

Both teams used all five of their available substitutes during the midweek match, but Arsenal arguably rested their starters better than Manchester City did. Blackstenius and Lina Hurtig both played 68 minutes, coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Lauren Hemp and Bunny Shaw both played the full 120 minutes. However, City have the more established squad. Hayley Raso could be in line for a start having only played extra-time, whilst Mary Fowler added a much needed spark of creativity to their midfield when she came on – even if it did turn out to be too little, too late.

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Will Jonas Eidevall continue his back three experiment?

Viewers of the Conti Cup match were perhaps surprised to see Arsenal line up in a back three with Rafaelle, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Leah Williamson all playing. This left Kim Little and Frida Maanum to play as a double pivot, with Laura Wienroither and Katie McCabe as wing backs. The back three were pretty effective at stifling Manchester City’s attack but there was a knock on effect higher up the pitch. Wienroither struggled to get high enough in order to impact the game, often looking static and confused as to where she was supposed to be.

Meanwhile, Maanum continues to be wasted being played in a deeper role. She has consistently shown this season that she is at her best as a number 10, and the way she won the ball ahead of Arsenal’s goal showed why she is so effective. Her physicality allows her to force high turnovers, letting Arsenal’s attackers catch teams out of position and create chances. Only Manchester City have had more shot-ending high turnovers than Arsenal this season in the Women’s Super League, so being able to unsettle either defence could be key.

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Can City’s wingers capture some good form?

When it comes to scoring goals, Shaw has had all of that wrapped up for Manchester City. But perhaps that has hidden the fact that neither of their first-choice wingers have exactly been in sparkling form recently. Chloe Kelly recently scored her first WSL goal of the season in City’s match against Leicester whilst Hemp has not scored or assisted in the league since October.

If Arsenal were to stick with a back three, there might be more space to exploit out wide for both Hemp and Kelly, if they can try and attack their defenders one v one. One of the many positives of having Shaw in your frontline is that she draws attention away, but Hemp and Kelly will have to work to make the most of that. This match would be the perfect opportunity for them to let rip.

Both Arsenal and City have a lot of pressure riding on this match, and perhaps that showed in how cagey the midweek game was. Neither team showed their best on Wednesday, but it remains to be seen whether either was trying to keep their powder dry for the arguably more important WSL fixture. Losing would not have to be decisive for either team, but it would certainly put them both in an uphill struggle from now to the end of the season.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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