If momentum is anything to go by then the outcome of Arsenal’s meeting with Manchester City on Saturday is a foregone conclusion. Coming into the clash at the Emirates Stadium, the two teams could hardly have experienced weeks of greater contrast.
For City, it was a few days that it would have been difficult to imagine going any better. After a 5-0 cruise against Fulham last weekend, they then went to the famous home of their illustrious neighbors and brushed them aside by scoring a further three goals and extending their run of clean sheets in the league to five. Three points off the Premier League summit but with two games in hand, Manuel Pellegrini’s side are now very much favorites to claim the title.
Just seven days ago, Arsenal had realistic hopes of lifting that same trophy in May. Not so now. Their confidence shattered by a 6-0 defeat to Chelsea, Arsenal then conceded a last minute own goal to cost them all three points against Swansea. The manner of their failure to win in midweek will surely have dented the fragile mental state of the Arsenal squad even further ahead of their meeting with a Manchester City side rounding into form at just the right time.
And more than any other top side, the psychological condition of Arsenal’s players is constantly a key factor. Arsene Wenger called it an “accident,” but for Arsenal the 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge was merely the continuation of a disastrous pattern when visiting the league’s top clubs. Arsenal have shipped a combined 17 goals at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea this season. On the most basic level the players have simply not looked up to the battle required when going up against the very best. And having conceded early goals there has not been the resolve necessary to dig in and simply limit the damage for a spell before regaining a foothold.
Still, much of that doubtless comes from their manager. Wenger was rightly celebrated when approaching a 1,000th game he will never be able to forget against Chelsea, but he has become a frustrating ideologue unwilling to temper his desire for style above all else. It is not that Wenger has to obliterate his positive, pleasing-on-the-eye philosophy but there is a time and a place for the other side of the game to come to the fore, too.
In the early glory years of Wenger’s reign there was certainly an awareness of this. In particular, Patrick Vieira set an example and a standard that the rest of the team would follow. And in the beginning portion of this season there were signs, too, that Wenger had once again grasped that the work without the ball was important as that done when in possession. The re-signing of Mathieu Flamini almost fell into Wenger’s lap, but in the early weeks his arrival proved as influential as the club-record deal for Mesut Ozil. While clearly not as talented as Vieira, Flamini, also set an example for others to follow in terms of closing down opponents without the ball. His leadership could also be seen in his constant directing of his teammates into position.
It is hard to fathom then, especially given Arsenal’s injury crisis in midfield, why Flamini was left on the bench at Stamford Bridge. In his absence the lack of mobility and intuition for the holding role of Mikel Arteta and the youthful exuberance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were trampled over by Chelsea’s ravaging play in transition.
In the 15 Premier League matches where Flamini has played more than 45 minutes this season Arsenal have lost twice, in the other 16 they have lost four times. Having started against Swansea in midweek, it has to be expected that Wenger will have learned his lesson and select Flamini against City.
His defensive acumen in the holding role will certainly be needed against a team featuring David Silva arguably in the form of his life. With Sergio Aguero still injured, the Spaniard has been given more freedom to influence the game from the No 10 role, while often interchanging cleverly with Samir Nasri on the left. At Old Trafford Silva made a mockery of Manchester United’s admittedly shambolic midfield. If Arsenal fail to be more disciplined than at Stamford Bridge then he will surely do similar.
Like Arsenal, Manchester City have also at times this season been far too neglecting of what happens when they lose the ball. It is an issue embodied by their central midfielders. In Fernandinho and Yaya Toure, Pellegrini has two of the best, certainly most dynamic, midfielders in the Premier League, yet neither is a natural holder. Thus on Tuesday, when City were dominating United in the opening stages, they had at least six players regularly flying forward. Despite being outplayed, Manchester United were still seeing openings on the break.
Such openness has cost City in the past this season, but to Pellegrini’s credit this time his players took a step back. Fernandinho and Toure produced more disciplined performances after the opening 25 minutes allowing City to then just pick United off at will and win comfortably.
With so much quality going forward, that greater control and greater balance provided by having just one striker could well see City over the line toward a second title in three seasons. And against a jaded and mentally-shot Arsenal side, City should still overwhelm the Gunners for the second time this season to take another massive step toward doing so.
Prediction: Arsenal 1-3 Manchester City