Can City slow Martinelli and Saka down? Can anyone prevent Haaland? How will Man City win the Premier League?
It is the most important Premier League match this year. As Manchester City appears to be in position to win a third consecutive English championship and a fifth under Pep Guardiola, Arsenal’s final opportunity to salvage a spectacular campaign is in danger of sputtering to a halt before the finish line. Is there anything an injured Arsenal can do to stop City from winning the championship? Let’s examine some of the crucial factors before the game:
Holding holds his own but midfield runners cause chaos
How would the battle for the championship differ if William Saliba were healthy? Arsenal’s defensive problems precede the Frenchman’s potentially season-ending back injury, but they have undoubtedly gotten worse without a player who has resembled Virgil van Dijk in his prime this season more than Van Dijk himself. Similar to the legendary Liverpool defender, Saliba exudes the majesty of a guy who is confident in his ability to win every duel and chase down every long ball. Even when he doesn’t, that is true. It would still hold true in Erling Haaland’s case.
Rob Holding obviously falls short of those expectations; after all, no one would expect their fourth or fifth choice center back to perform up to those standards. Even at his finest, the 27-year-old has a number of complication factors that limit what those around him can do. Gabriel Magalhaes and Saliba made a good team since the latter was a more aggressive defender who sought to eliminate opponents high up the pitch. Holding attempts to adopt the same strategy but is unable to rebound at the same rate that Arsenal has done for the majority of the season. Additionally, his distribution is poor. Against Southampton, it was remarkable that Thomas Partey frequently collected the ball level with the center backs, with plenty of space separating him from the offense he typically connects up with.
What Holding excels at is winning fights, and it may have been overdone how difficult it was for him to defeat Haaland the previous time they faced off. It made sense for Arteta to pull a player who had not started a Premier League game prior to the FA Cup fourth-round match at the Etihad because of the yellow card he received in the first half. He had a method for dealing with the best striker in the world; it wasn’t risk-free, but it was the best way for him to handle this most difficult of duties. City has played slowly in both of its games this season to counter Arsenal’s press. That required striking Haaland, who was then suffocated by Holding.
It was their first clash at the Etihad in January, and the picture above captures the mood. When Holding won the aerial battle or applied enough pressure to the ball, it frequently went in Arsenal’s favor and wriggle loose to a teammate who was covering. There is no risk-free way for anyone, not even Saliba, to defend against City’s No. 9; the one time Haaland managed to get the ball down and turn, Holding had no choice but to throw out a yellow card and find himself on the booking.
This time around, it might be so much tougher for Holding. There are no assurances that Haaland will remain as alone in the top of the lineup as he was on this occasion and quite frequently in the early part of the season this time around. The Norwegian does succeed in winning the knockdown in the situation below, but his teammates are so far behind him that Arsenal can just rush him and regain possession.
Guardiola’s approach has changed enough since January—and even since these two teams’ previous league match—that John Stones now complements Rodri in the midfield. That has given players like Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Ilkay Gundogan permission to push up beside Haaland, even if they often do not do so to prevent knockdowns from long balls. Holding’s job gets more difficult right away, and even though he might be able to win his fair amount of aerial battles, it will be much harder for him to halt Haaland if City is capturing a larger percentage of second balls.
Guardiola manages to slow one of Arsenal’s wide wonders
The sheer difficulty of foreseeing what Guardiola would do before he does it is one of the difficulties in writing these columns. In his pre-game press conference, Arteta conceded as much and listed a half-dozen changes City may make to their strategy to test Arsenal. They can create the game with three, be asymmetrical on one side, play Bernardo on the right, or play with a diamond with Walker higher. They can even play with a box within. They have so many capabilities that you need to be flexible and keep an eye on specific rules if you want to move the game in the direction you want.
Since you were the former City assistant manager, shouldn’t it be assumed that you know what they’re going to do?”No, that’s the answer,” he said. “I am unaware of the lineup. We’ll have a better idea once we know the lineup, but depending on who he plays, they might try something different, just like we can. In the final phrase of his press conference, Arteta again suggested that he would try a new strategy, but despite all the uncertainties, there are a few things we can be certain about. The wide forwards for Arsenal are their greatest asset. Only one of them may be capable of being stopped by the city.
Gabriel Martinelli, an Arsenal left winger, has been on fire since the World Cup and is presently in the top five scorers in the Premier League with 15 goals. He seemed to be the only one, especially against Southampton, who refused to give up despite a poor start, inspiring his colleagues to keep going.
However, if you were to create a defense to counter Martinelli, you might wind up with someone who resembles Kyle Walker: he is skilled, seasoned, and completely fearless. Guardiola prefers center backs out on the flanks, so the England international hasn’t played much in recent weeks. That might alter, though, given the problems on the other flank, where Nathan Ake’s participation is in some doubt after suffering an injury against a Bayern Munich team that like hitting City from wide areas quite a bit.
In slowing Bukayo Saka’s progress toward goal this season, Ake has performed better than everyone else. Without him, or even with a less-than-optimal version of him, City might not be able to do much to stop one of the Premier League’s top attackers from finding success down the right. Aymeric Laporte seemed to be the obvious choice, although he is just another center back with scant prior experience in this position. Apart from that, the only option is Sergio Gomez, a raw young winger who is hardly a suitable replacement for either Joao Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko. never mind both. Jack Grealish may work as hard as he wants, but Saka is no longer intimidated by two-on-one situations. Despite the natural worry about how Arsenal would line up at the back, City too has problems that are difficult to resolve.
City win the title race… but Arsenal will be back
It’s not at all impossible to see Arsenal winning at the Etihad and snapping their 11-game Premier League losing streak. Although Mikel Arteta’s team has lost both of their matches against Manchester City this year, there have been portions of each game in which they have been in the lead. The reigning champions may have been on their best run since the first signs of spring, but Bayern Munich showed in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal that their flanks can be used against them by great wide players.
Arsenal would shatter the preconceived narrative of this title race with a victory, right? They would suddenly be in control of their own fate and the overwhelming favorites to win the first domestic championship in 19 years. According to Opta, City’s chances of winning the league are 91 percent with a victory and 72 percent with a draw. If you lose, Arsenal is now 56 percent to 44 percent favored. And so, even though the models would like the appearance of a visitor who triumphs on Wednesday, it is difficult to imagine Arteta’s men handling the most difficult matches up ahead of them — away at Newcastle and at home against Brighton. Keeping any advantage they may have over a City team, whose schedule appears to be more advantageous now that Brentford appears to be playing in flip-flops and shorts, while also maintaining any lead they may have over a team.
Regardless of how Arsenal loses, there will be phony talk about bottling it and finishing with around 90 points, coupled with the argument that this was their final chance since, as the tired cliche goes, everyone else will improve next season. Newcastle will have Saudi money burning a hole in their pocket, Liverpool will start their rebuild, Chelsea will be less of a situational comedy, and Manchester United will buy another superstar in their late 20s with a history of skipping games. Even though all of this may be true. To argue that Arsenal is anything other than City’s most sensible competition in the years to come would be a great insult to them.
After all, their team’s relative youth was one of the reasons their title candidacy was questioned for such a long time. Early in the season, it seemed improbable that all of Arteta’s promising young actors had suddenly become stars, but recent performances have persisted long enough to give that hypothesis some credence. There is time if there is space for people like Saka, Martinelli, and Saliba to develop. Then there will be the strengthening that Arsenal does in the transfer market, where they are searching for two strong midfielders and a full back. Players on their radar include Declan Rice, Moises Caicedo, Mason Mount, and Gabri Viega. They should be able to compete on several levels if they can have depth on the rest of the field equivalent to that which they have in attack, where they impressively overcame Gabriel Jesus’ injury.
Of all, there are no prizes in it for being City’s closest rival. Liverpool, the second-best team on the continent behind Guardiola’s, can relate to the relative rarity of championships. But like Jurgen Klopp, Arsenal has positioned itself as the team most prepared to capitalize on any downturns at the Etihad. All they can do is wait for them to arrive eventually.