Wenger's side will have to find ways to stop duo whose dual roles - starting wide and veering infield to materialise as penalty-box poachers - have proved brutally effective for Manchester City this season
Arsenal up against Sane and Sterling who have gone from subs to starters to stars
Perhaps it was a glimpse of Manchester City’s future.
Arsenal visited the Etihad Stadium. After a half-time rethink, they were beaten by goals from wingers ordered to adopt wide positions to stretch the Gunners’ defence.
It was not merely the first time Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, arguably the two most productive players in the Premier League this season, scored in the same game. It was the German’s first City goal.
That was last December. It would be a simplification to say that Pep Guardiola has followed the same blueprint throughout the subsequent 11 months.
Indeed, he started the season with Sane and Sterling on the bench, City playing 3-5-2 and seemingly intent on becoming the 21st-century wingless wonders. Yet that only renders their subsequent renaissance all the more remarkable.
Substitutes have become starters and stars.
No one has been involved in more Premier League goals than Sane, who has scored six and made five. He averages a goal or assist every 53 minutes.
Sterling is the comparative slowcoach: he gets a goal or an assist every 56 minutes. He is rubbing shoulders with Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku in the scoring charts. In all competitions, he has already equalled his 10-goal tally from last season: they came in 47 games, these in just 14.
This has been a week when City have celebrated the scoring exploits of a prolific centre-forward with Aguero passing Eric Brook’s long-standing record of 177 goals with his strike in Napoli.
Yet it has come at a time when the strikers have been eclipsed. Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have 17 goals between them this season. Sane and Sterling have 18. Mikel Arteta’s coaching has made them more potent.
Their dual roles, starting wide and veering infield to materialise as penalty-box poachers, have long been part of Guardiola’s ethos.
“Freedom, [in the] last third, run, you’re allowed to,” Thierry Henry said in 2015, describing his time on the left flank for Barcelona. “You start in a high position, and wide, but after that, you can do whatever you want.”
Henry was once substituted at half time after scoring the only goal for ignoring Guardiola’s positional instructions. Sterling has prospered by following them.
“He always tries to get you do the simple stuff at the top level and that is genius because it works,” the Englishman said last month.
But if the wingers have had an importance in every game of late, they have a particular pertinence today. City beat Chelsea in part because using wingers high and wide is a way to unlock a side that plays 3-4-2-1.
If their wing-backs push up, there is space behind them. If they do not, they have a back five and it affords Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva space in midfield.
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Arsene Wenger suggested on Friday that Arsenal will take the more positive approach. “You cannot go there and only be focused on defending,” the Frenchman said.
If it was a suggestion that left wing-back, cult hero and possible early-season leader in the race to be crowned Arsenal’s player of the year Sead Kolasinac will be in the same buccaneering mood he was against Swansea City last week, that should offer Sterling encouragement.
Arsenal defended their way to a 0-0 draw against Chelsea. It is not their natural game.
Before this weekend, Granit Xhaka had played the most passes in the Premier League. The next five in the list are all City players.
City have had the most possession, followed by Arsenal. Yet if the visitors are likely to spend much of the match without the ball, it becomes a defensive exercise.
And to succeed, they will have to stop City’s SAS: Sterling and Sane.