Arsenal’s midfield positioning up against Manchester City’s forward push
Arsene Wenger’s habit, when doubts about Arsenal’s title credentials, have been raised has been to turn to irony. “So long as we are five points clear,” he said after Sunday’s draw against Everton, “you cannot write us off.”
By the time his side’s game at Manchester City is over on Saturday, that lead could be eight points and the doubts would have burned away.
Arsenal are the best travellers in the Premier League, having picked up 16 points from seven away games, but City have by far the best home record.
Not only have they won all seven games played at the Etihad, but they have scored 29 goals and conceded just two.
Away from home, the defensive vulnerability of the pairing of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, neither of them a true holder, at the back of midfield has been exposed, as has the tendency of Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero to operate as a front two, rather than as a striker and an attacking midfielder. Pouring men forward, City have been able to overwhelm sides.
One of Arsenal’s strengths this season is that it no longer has to dominate possession, and has not, ranking eighth in the Premier League possession stats, albeit third among teams playing away.
Wenger’s team are perfectly capable of allowing the opposition time on the ball and holding them at arm’s length – as they did successfully in periods of the home games against Southampton and Everton. Even away to Napoli on Wednesday, Arsenal were relatively successful in stifling their opponents, undone in the end only by two excellent finishes and one pass of absurd precision.
Still, to do that against City, who have such a range of attacking options, is a new magnitude of difficulty, and it may be that Wenger decides to fight fire with fire and looks to take the game to City, targeting that potential weakness in front of the back four. The midfield battle will be both fascinating and decisive.
The first issue is who Wenger selects at the back of his own midfield. Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey would help control possession, but moving Ramsey out to the right would allow Wenger to bring in the ball-winning attributes of Mathieu Flamini.
Mesut Ozil is almost certain to start centrally, looking to find space around Toure and Fernandinho, with Santi Cazorla to the left. The right, though, is more intriguing. If Ramsey is used central and deep, recent selections suggest Jack Wilshere to be used there. That is fine when Arsenal expect to dominate the ball, and one of the features of this season is how Wilshere’s goal threat has increased, but deploying him on the right makes Arsenal very narrow.
Offensively, that is not a problem: their technical ability is such they can play in much tighter areas than almost any other side, and so can make a virtue of overloading in that central attacking zone.
Defensively, though, it could be an issue, as the narrowness makes it very hard to track runs by the opposing full-backs, a potential weakness exacerbated by Jesus Navas’s pace from the right for City. If Arsenal sit deep, though, with Cazorla helping protect Kieran Gibbs on the left and Wilshere/Ramsey covering Carl Jenkinson on the right, Olivier Giroud can become isolated up front.
The solution may be to bring in Theo Walcott, whose pace would allow him to get forward to support Giroud, although he has not started since the Uefa Champions League match against Marseille on September 18.
However Wenger lines up, this has the feel of a decisive game, not merely in terms of points, but in terms of testing the depth and flexibility of Wenger’s midfield.
Win this and the pressure is off the December 23 fixture against Chelsea. Win both, and they may suddenly seem uncatchable.
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