Arsenal v Manchester City preview: ruthless champions to regain control in title race
The Gunners have been leading for months but cracks are beginning to appear in their pursuit of a first Premier League trophy in almost two decades. Seasoned opponents City sense blood in this high-stakes six-pointer at the Emirates tonight, kick-off 7.30pm, writes Rachel Roberts.
The stage is set for a gripping top-of-the-table clash as Arsenal take on Manchester City tonight. Not since the Invincibles of 2003/04 have Arsenal called themselves Premier League champions – an almost 20-year void that has witnessed a drastic turning of the tides.
City have won six titles since then, establishing themselves as the league’s dominant force. The standard of what it takes to come out on top in the division has been pushed to new levels. To compare, the Invincibles lifted their golden trophy with 90 points on the board.
Fifteen years later, the 2018/19 season ended on the final day, with 98 points enough to tie the City blue ribbons on the league title. Liverpool finished a single point behind them, on 97 points, after one of the most gripping run-ins ever seen.
So, standards have changed, and competing at the top in this landscape is a new challenge for Arsenal. Their best finish most recently was picking up Tottenham’s scattered pieces for second, following Leicester’s miraculous triumph in 2015/16. They have answered all the questions thrown at them so far, but as the season closes in tensions may be emerging, for them and City alike.
Arsenal’s form has taken a hit, dropping points against Everton and Brentford, who had chances to win the game. These last two results have opened a door for those chasing them, only piling on the pressure in this fixture.
Likewise, Manchester City’s form has not met its usual standards in recent games. They suffered a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham after beating them 4-2 at home just two weeks prior as well as January’s derby day loss. Their 3-1 win against Aston Villa on Sunday marked a welcome improvement in their performance at just the right time for their league defence.
Pep Guardiola fielded a back three against Villa, but will likely revert to a 4-3-3 line-up to deal with the threat of Bukayo Saka on City’s left-hand side. For Mikel Arteta, the lack of depth in his squad means he is unlikely to change formation.
The last time these two sides met was at the end of January in the FA Cup, where City got the better of a heavily rotated Arsenal side. The Sky Blues have won the last five league encounters by an aggregate score of 12-2. You have to go back to April 2017 for the last time Arsenal picked up a point in this fixture. That is steep history to overcome, though Arteta may feel his side have never been in a better position to do so than they are now.
While John Stones remains absent through a thigh injury, City’s newest concern will be for Erling Haaland’s fitness, after potentially picking up a knock against Aston Villa. But Guardiola reassured his half-time withdrawal was a precaution.
Arsenal remain without Gabriel Jesus, Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson, who are all suffering from long-term injuries. Mohamed Elneny also sustained a knee injury in training at the end of January and remains out of contention for Arteta.
Key players: the notable Norwegians
Haaland’s impact on the league since his arrival is undeniable – 25 goals in 21 appearances has him running away with the golden boot. Yet lately it feels as though he either scores a hat trick or has a minimal impact on the game.
The seven fixtures that passed without product suggest the striker delivers a stand-out performance, or has relatively little to show after 90 minutes.
Either way, Haaland is frequently given little to work with. Whether he touches the ball or not, he will always be a headache in the minds of defenders, but the low number of touches he records makes the numbers he has achieved all the more impressive.
Captain Odegaard leads by example
Fellow Norseman Martin Odegaard makes Arsenal tick. His ability to manufacture the space for the strikers in-front of him to be creative make Odegaard a standout player.
After various troubles with recent captains, it seems in Odegaard the club have finally found the stability and reliability in their leadership needed to navigate the club back to the top. He has also produced goals in critical moments, including in the North London derby back in January.
The personal touch: Arteta and Guardiola
Arteta’s relationship with Guardiola has been well documented. The two had crossed paths when they were both at Barcelona, and upon his retirement in 2016, Arteta joined Guardiola’s coaching team at Manchester City.
He served as a highly valued member of that team, until the irresistible pull of the club he had captained bought him back to London. In his third full season at the helm, the Gunners have fired their way to the top, picking up an FA Cup in 2020 along the way.
The master verses the apprentice may be the narrative, but for his first major title challenge as a manager it is not necessarily the one Arteta desired. Before the FA Cup clash against City back in January, the Arsenal boss took the opportunity to joke how he would prefer to compete for the league against someone else.
The elephant in the room
For Guardiola, his mind may be lingering elsewhere. The 100-plus charges issued against Manchester City for alleged breaches of Premier League regulations have rattled through the football sphere and set the Spaniard, understandably, on the defensive.
What impact could this have on the pitch? It could bring a siege mentality, and as recent seasons prove, once in form, they are a team more than capable of putting on an unstoppable winning run. On the other hand, the outside pressures could prove too much of a distraction if players contemplate uncertain futures.
Prediction: Arsenal 1 Manchester City 2
Expect City to be highly motivated in this must-win game. The recent blip in Arsenal’s form has been the first real sign of cracks in their title challenge. With a game in hand and another match-up against City to follow at the end of April, this game is equally as imperative to win for them to keep control of the race.
The Gunners’ lack of experience in these pressurised circumstances may prove too much for them to handle, unlike their seasoned opponents. With newfound form and drive, City should have enough determination to leave London top of the league, with three points that will change the face of the title race.
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts
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