The Premier League is back with a clash between two of the so-called Top 6 as Arsenal travel to Manchester City.
The Champions (for now at least) play host to Arsenal in their first game back since the Covid-19 global pandemic brought the sporting world to a screeching halt. For the first time this season, they will have a full squad to choose from too.
Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte have completely recovered from injuries that saw them miss large parts of the season so far, with Sane not featuring at all since the Community Shield back in August. It means Pep has a selection headache on his hands, but one he’s happy about considering the upcoming schedule.
Guardiola said to the virtual gathering at his pre-match press conference that he expects to use “all of his players” over the coming three fixtures, which all happen in the space of a week. Pep said:
“We are ready to play one game, but three days after another and four days after another… we are not ready. We have to rotate and use all the players. The players are in naturally good physical condition.”
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had similar feelings towards the game schedule. Speaking in his Zoom-call press conference, he said:
“Obviously we had a big turning point with the coronavirus and being away from each other for three months, but we’ve been trying to keep going in our direction and I think we’re in a good position to move forward. We have some uncertainties that we cannot control and we do not know how the players are going to respond now, playing every three days after three months, but most of the clubs are in the same position.“
Arsenal also have a mostly-fit squad to choose from with Calum Chambers and Lucas Torreira the only ones unavailable. That means Arteta will have plenty of options in attack to choose from with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Nketiah all competing for the centre-forward role. While Arteta has opted for the Gabonese man out wide during his reign so far, surely in this situation you want your best attacker central and closest to the goal.
Bernd Leno is a sure-thing to start between the sticks, while Arsenal’s first choice defence so far this season has been Bellerin, Luiz, Sokratis and Bukayo Saka. Kieran Tierney is fit again so he could come in on the left, while a back-five is also an option with Rob Holding or Shkodran Mustafi coming in for a midfielder.
In midfield, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka have been the usual choice for Arteta with Matteo Guendouzi having to settle for a place on the bench. Further forward, Mesut Ozil’s place isn’t guaranteed under Arteta so it’s likely that he’ll also start on the bench. Joe Willock has done well as a No.10 in the mid-season friendlies that Arsenal have had against Brentford and Charlton so he’s a candidate to start but I expect Arsenal will line-up with an attack consisting of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe supported by a midfield two of Guendouzi and Xhaka and a back-five of Bellerin, Mustafi, Luiz, Sokratis and Saka.
Man City’s side is much more difficult to predict. With a full-strength side, Guardiola’s options are unlimited but we do know that he will go with his trusty 4-3-3 formation.
Ederson will start in goal, with Walker and Laporte guaranteed to start too. I expect Laporte to be partnered by Fernandinho in the centre of defence with Benjamin Mendy getting the nod at left-back. In midfield, Rodri will sit at the base of the midfield and support Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian’s partner in midfield is arguably the toughest choice for Guardiola, with David Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan all capable but different options depending on what Guardiola wants from them. I expect he’ll go with David Silva, opting for experience. In attack, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero are almost certain to start but their partner could determine Sterling’s position on the field. If Sane starts on the left, Sterling would go over to his preferred right-wing role where he scores so many goals. If Mahrez or Bernardo start, City would be more narrow in attack with the full-backs overlapping which could help against a potential Arsenal back-five. For this reason, I expect Bernardo will get the nod.
Sergio Aguero has 11 goals in 16 games against Arsenal and I expect he will add to that tally during this game. Despite the big break, City have got a lot more quality in their squad and the new rule that allows 5 substitutions per team will help the Blues if they are struggling to break a side down. Arteta won’t want to abandon his philosophies completely so will still look to pass the ball out from the back, which could see Guardiola’s side press-high and force errors.
A win for Arsenal puts them back in contention for a Champions League place considering this is their game-in-hand, but a defeat almost certainly rules them out of the race. I think Man City will give Chelsea one less team to worry about once this fixture is over.
Manchester City (-1) – 5/6
Sergio Aguero to score anytime – 4/6