In the last thirteen games in all competitions, Man City have only lost twice. Once to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday and once to Arsenal in the Premier League when Mikel Arteta’s long range blast ensured a 1-0 win at the Emirates last spring. In the interim, City have quite an impressive record. They have won nine and drawn just two games between the Arsenal loss and the Real Madrid loss and proved that money can’t buy you a championship, it can’t buy you class, it can’t buy you history, but it can buy you a lot of expensive players. And those expensive players give the manager a lot of options off the bench. Which is largely how Mancini and Man City have such an impressive record: they have an impressive bench.
In Mancini’s pre-match press conference he spoke about the need to keep those bench players, like Mario Balotelli, happy despite not being able to play them week in and week out. This is a problem that Arsenal supporters haven’t had to worry about for a few years as a combination of injury and penury have limited Arsene’s choices. But for the first time in years, Arsenal are a deep team as well. If Wenger starts Podolski, Gervinho, and Chamberlain, he’ll have Arshavin, Walcott, and Giroud that he can bring on. I can’t remember the last time that Arsenal had so many attacking options coming off the bench.
But oddly, in the last three games between these two sides, there have only been two goals. That’s not been for lack of options from Man City’s perspective but rather from a very defensive posture taken by Mancini in these matches. Opting for multiple holding midfielders from kickoff and for bringing even more deep lying mids on late in the games has the smell of a manager who is targeting one point instead of three.
But Man City are off to a rocky start this season and surely they will want to get all three points tomorrow. Leading me to believe that City will try to dominate possession and attack high up the pitch. It’s funny to say that City are off to a rocky start because both City and Arsenal have the same record so far: two wins and two draws. But the difference is that City’s defense has been plucked more times than The Rose of Tralee this season, giving up 11 goals in their last six games. Teams are coming after City and they are being rewarded for it. And most importantly from an Arsenal perspective, teams are counter-attacking City and City seem unable to cope.
As I’ve said before Arsenal are trying on different masks this season. Do they want to be that possession-based offensive team of the past (the Wenger mask) or are they the type of team that is comfortable defending deep and hitting teams on the counter (the Bould mask). As we saw in the second half against Montpellier on Tuesday, Arsenal struggled with the Bould mask: allowing the French champions far too many good chances on goal. They can’t repeat that performance against City, the Citizens have too many predatory finishers both in the starting lineup and coming off the bench. If Arsenal are going to cede possession it will have to be 90 minutes of hell from every position on the pitch.
And I trust that Arsenal will press City in every possible way. Cazorla and Podolski are the perfect examples of this new Arsenal philosophy. Podolski may be a striker but he always tracks back to help out his fullback. And Cazorla may be a #10, but like my favorite Arsenal #10 (Dennis Bergkamp) has a toughness to his game that belies his stature.
I also trust the swiftness of Arsenal’s counter. Podolski again epitomizes this: dropping deep to defend, he’ll win the ball and play it up to Cazorla. Then in a flash he’s on the end of the receiving pass for a goal scoring opportunity. This is far cry from the Arsenal team built around Cesc Fabregas and who even the IT Crowd joked “tried to walk the ball in to the net.”
But Arsenal have only played five matches so far this season and the problem is we don’t know if the club have truly changed character or if they are just trying on masks. What’s underneath the mask? Is Mannone a real challenger for Arsenal’s number one? Is Jenkinson ready to take the reigns from Sagna the way Cole took them from Sylvinho? Will Arsenal sit deep and harass City or will they look to match the Citizens pass for pass? These are questions that can only be answered when the masks come off in big games like this one against City.