Three Selection Headaches for Arsenal ahead of Etihad Trip.
This article is the written form of ideas expressed on the Dubious Goals Panel podcast, available here (Arsenal discussion begins at 10:30).
Ninety-Seven days after the fixture was supposed to be played, Arsenal will finally find themselves heading to the Etihad to take on soon-to-be-deposed Champions Manchester City. The game is surrounded by intrigue, an expected Manchester City victory tempered by the narrative of Mikel Arteta’s return to his previous place of employment, where he worked with Pep Guardiola for over three years. If anyone should know how to counter Manchester City, you would think it would be Arteta.
On a purely footballing basis, the long layoff due to the global pandemic means that both sides approach the fixture with fully fit squads. The fitness of the Arsenal squad has been tested with friendly games against Championship sides Charlton and Brentford, and these friendlies have seen Arteta experiment with a wide array of formations and personnel. However, questions remain about the Spaniards best side, and below are outlined three potential selection headaches for Arsenal’s head coach going into this game.
1. Shkodran Mustafi vs Pablo Mari
When Pablo Mari joined the club in a January loan move, the defender clearly ticked a box that Arteta felt crucial, having a left-footed centre back on the left of his defensive partnerships. David Luiz has deputized on this side well but traditionally is more comfortable on the right. Despite this, Mari only made two starts, first against Portsmouth in the FA Cup, which was followed by making his league debut against West Ham United. In both games, he helped Arsenal keep a clean sheet, and offered some semblance of balance to their defence.
However, Mari has still only played twice for the Gunners, and starting him against Manchester City so soon may ordinarily be a bridge too far. Therefore, Arteta may look at the resurgence of form of Shkodran Mustafi, who has played in five of Arsenal’s last six fixtures, helping the side to two wins and three draws in the process. He has been much improved under Arteta, but as the back pass against Chelsea proved, he remains suspect to the odd moment where he appears to switch off his brain. Against a side such as Manchester City, that would represent a huge problem.
Another point in Pablo Mari’s favour is that this is the first competitive fixture for either side in over three months. As the first round of fixtures in the Bundesliga and La Liga have shown, these games are a shadow of the sorts of games we are accustomed to seeing, as both sides attempt to work up to match sharpness and full fitness. This may help counteract Mari’s relative inexperience in the league, and could well be the perfect way to ease him into Premier League life.
My Pick: Pablo Mari.
2. Kieran Tierney vs Bukayo Saka
Left-back was a key problem area in the last meeting between Arsenal and Manchester City, the champions finding much success in that area and ultimately seeing Sead Kolasinac substituted in the first half. The damage was already done by then however, as three goals had sealed defeat. This is a position that Arsenal have to get right on this occasion to stand any chance of snatching any sort of result from the Etihad.
Another case of match-fit versus better suited to the position, Arsenal’s left-back slot has the added dimension of Bukayo Saka, having played left back for much of the season, not being a natural full-back. In Arteta’s Arsenal system, this has been countered by allowing him to venture forward and asking Granit Xhaka to provide cover for the left channel. Whether this is a tactical choice or a necessity is another matter, however.
Tierney has hardly featured this season due to injury but is incredibly highly thought of by Celtic fans and Arsenal management alike, although like Saka his best attributes are demonstrated going forwards. Whoever starts in this position is to an extent dependent on who is chosen at left centre-back. The same arguments can be made for both Mari and Tierney regarding relative match fitness and sharpness, but playing them both would appear risky and could potentially leave Arsenal’s left-hand side vulnerable. Going forward, however, it is a partnership that could well blossom, and could prove to be a masterstroke.
My Pick: Kieran Tierney
3. Finding a midfield balance
For most of his management career at Arsenal, Arteta has deployed the side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which transitions into a 2-3-5 in possession. Against Manchester City, Arsenal are likely to see far less of the ball than they are used to, and due to this we could see Arteta change the side tactically and set the side up in a more industrious 4-3-3 formation, which Liverpool and Manchester City have used to great success in recent seasons.
A move to 4-3-3 would see Mesut Ozil dropped to the bench, while Alexandre Lacazette could be crucial for his ability to hold up the ball, which he does with much more success than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who will likely play on the left hand-side. Whilst Reiss Nelson offers an intriguing option for the future, Nicolas Pepe is almost certain to start the game on the right. The real questions begin in midfield.
Each of Arsenal’s midfielders is good at something, but each comes with several drawbacks. Take Granit Xhaka for example; a fantastic passer of the ball, but severely lacking in both mobility and defensive awareness. Arsenal’s midfield in general lacks a great deal of mobility. Creating a midfield trio with the players available which could seriously combat Manchester City looks to be a difficult task.
All that being said, Arteta may have a solution. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been relieved of duties at right-back, and in both friendly games played in central midfield. Whilst friendlies have to be treated with caution, this is a solution which has been floated around before, and would offer increased athleticism to Arsenal’s midfield. Alongside Dani Ceballos or Joe Willock, Arsenal would have 2 good central midfielders to which they could add Xhaka or Torreira without losing too much mobility in the side. It is certainly an option worth exploring.
Nobody, not even the most ardent Arsenal fan, expects Arteta and the Gunners to return to London with three points, with very few expecting anything at all from the game. However, with the experience Arteta has coaching Manchester City, he is the perfect candidate to foil Manchester City, provided that he gets his selection right.