Arsenal face arguably one of their toughest tests of the season away to Manchester City this Thursday, as the apprentice meets his former master. Our away form has been diabolic all season when it comes to picking up the 3 points - We just draw games for fun. The club have just one away league win since opening day which was way back in December against West Ham under Freddie Ljungberg.
Mikel Arteta has implemented a 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal - A system he has used right throughout his short time with us so far. While he has made a few tactical tweaks every now and then, it seems he prefers this formation at least for now, to try and adapt to the characteristics of some of the players we have. It has seen us show a decent level of improvement in terms of performance and results. Arsenal remain the the only side in Europe's top 5 leagues to remain undefeated in 2020 in domestic competitions and Arteta deserves credit for bringing some stability back into the club.
Now coming to Thursday's game against City which is our game in hand - Ideally, Arsenal need to try and pick up the 3 points to close the gap on 4th place to 5 points. A loss would mean an 8 point gap, which would be very difficult to close down in the last 9 games, considering we have some tricky away fixtures coming up.
Now let us analyse Manchester City. They typically use a 4-3-3, with Rodri at base with either 2 attacking midfielders in front of him in KDB and Bernardo Silva, or KDB and David Silva. In certain games, Guardiola also uses Gundogan in the middle who can arrive late in the box and give them a different dimension. Out wide, they have players of the highest quality and industry, as well as 2 deadly goalscorers in Aguero and Jesus. The challenge is not an easy one.
It is impractical in my opinion for us to continue with a 4-2-3-1 in this game. It calls for more pragmatism not only in the system, but also in our approach. They play with a 4-3-3 and have a numerical advantage in our final third which we just cannot deal with - Kevin De Bruyne even spoke about this in his post match presser after our 3-0 defeat at Emirates. The good thing though is that Arteta was on the bench that day. He would know what sort of game plan his counterpart would have in mind against us, so it becomes easier for Mikel to plan the game in such a way we have a shot at getting a positive result.
With Lucas Torreira's injury, Arsenal do not have a recognized ball winner. It is suicidal to continue with Xhaka-Ceballos-Ozil against one of the best midfield trios in world football. Sure, we can press and have a 10-15 minute spell of sustained possession, but not beyond that. It makes sense for us to have a more calculated approach and stay in the game for as long as possible.
You rather play a back 5 than play with a back 4 and sit. If we concede early, we can take more risks in terms of pressing with a back 5. Our 2 center backs - Luiz and Mari are pretty slow and will likely get exploited should we try and maintain a high line in a 4. It is imperative that we have an extra presence at the back. It also gives Saka more license and support.
I would play a 5-3-2. It is a formation that has caused Man City most concern in recent times. Everton implemented it really well and put in a solid display at Etihad. Wolves beat them twice using this system, Manchester United used more of a 5-2-1-2 where they had a work horse #10 playing instead of a flat 3 man midfield and have beaten City thrice this season.
Why a 5-3-2 is ideal against City?
1. The middle of the pitch is crowded with players giving lesser space for the likes of KDB and Bernardo to find those pockets
2. While space is given in wide areas, by marking the central zones with good organisation, it would take almost a perfect cross for Man City to make a chance and while Aguero and Jesus are top quality strikers, you would expect the likes of Mari and Luiz to win aerial duels.
3. City tend to get flustered at times when the opposition sits back, they start playing very high up the pitch. Having the pace of Saka, Aubameyang and Pepe or Martinelli, we can create openings by exploiting Otamendi, Zinchenko and Fernandinho at the back. Even Cancelo hasn't looked very convincing.
I would then pick a midfield 3 of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ceballos. 3 players who are good and tidy on the ball and can help us retain possession well and play the ball forward in tight situations, but most importantly, give us some defensive stability. It comes down to how long we can stay in the game for. We will get chances against them, they haven't looked convincing defensively all season. Question is will we take our chances and be counted?
This is going to be a really difficult game, but it is not impossible. A positive result would certainly be a huge confidence boost for a squad that has under-performed all season. COYG!