Fresh from pulling a rabbit out of a hat against Liverpool, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal face the former Premier League champions Manchester City in the first leg of the FA Cup semi-final.
The same Manchester City that beat Liverpool 4-0 at the Etihad just weeks ago. Arsenal have a history of doing things the hard way, but it’s important that this first game leaves the Gunners with something to play for in the second.
Arteta mentioned the gulf in class after the Liverpool game and that gulf still applies to Pep Guardiola’s side. The key men to contain will be Sterling, De Bruyne, and Jesus and it could require another gargantuan defensive effort from Arsenal just to keep the contest goalless because, in my opinion, Manchester City have far better-attacking options than the current Premier League champions.
So, if Arsenal fans found it fairly nerve-racking against Klopp’s men, tonight’s FA Cup tie is going to be equally tense against Guardiola’s also-rans.
The formation and personnel will be key and the concentration levels will have to be through the roof for a period of 110 minutes. Arsenal have often capitulated in the final moments of certain games but that can’t happen here, Manchester City must not gain an advantage.
I think Arteta will persist with a back three, but I’d personally go with a four. If he goes back three, then it could be Luiz, Holding, and Tierney. Mustafi has been hard to dislodge of late but Holding might just manage it after his verbal exchanges with Mane. It’s something we haven’t seen since his standoff with Diego Costa against Chelsea in the 2017 cup final.
Everyone thought that heralded his arrival, the moment his career went through the stratosphere, but it spluttered and he picked up injuries. Are we finally going to see the Rob Holding we’ve been imagining he could be? Possibly. If he features, he needs to get at City, make a noise at the heart of the defence and go after the opposition strikers like a man who’s future relies on the result.
My only problem with a Holding, Luiz, Tierney back three is that the Englishman is more of a centre-back. He played on the right against Leeds in the cup after only just coming back from injury and looked completely out of his depth. That might be unfair but it presents a risk. I suspect Luiz will occupy that particular hole and that Tierney, who has been immense since his return, will cover the left but drift inwards when danger comes.
Bellerin or Soares? Bellerin for me could be crucial going forward from the midfield and against Liverpool, he outperformed Tierney in the attack, whereas the Scot took the honours at the back. The left-back had some success, his touches and movement were good, but Tierney knows his job and that takes priority.
Ceballos and Xhaka are no brainier in the middle with Saka on the right. Nelson, Lacazette, and Aubameyang would be my front three. It’s going to be difficult for Arteta because his formation options might go against his natural creative instincts in this FA Cup fixture.
A back four will invite Manchester City on, a lone striker will be seen as an unambitious tactic that could misfire terribly if Arsenal can’t break out of their area quickly. A back three will require the midfield wingers to scamper back and forth to protect Martinez.
What we need: Arsenal’s midfield will have to go to war with City to fight for possession and there are going to be long periods where they are trying to fight fires without ever seeing the ball.
There’s a case to be made for Torreira to be included to sit in the FA Cup tie in front of the back-three to mop up and nip at the advancing heels. The only problem with that is that it could alter the balance of the first team.
Upfront, Lacazette has two goals in consecutive games plus an assist, so it’s almost impossible to leave him out. Pepe may have to miss the fixture because although he covered a lot of ground in his last outing, he wasn’t a threat. The jury is still out on the £72m man, but I’ve got a feeling it will all suddenly drop into place next season.
Is it time to experiment? Not at all. Arsenal needs to steal this FA Cup tie to keep their ambitions alive. A draw wouldn’t be awful but a 2 or 3 nil defeat would be almost impossible to claw back.
They need to chase and close down quickly, deprive De Bruyne of the pockets of space they casually get, and have someone sit on Sterling’s shoulder. They only way Arsenal can avoid the fire is to control it before it has a chance to get going.
Omissions for Arsenal: Bernd Leno (knee injury), Calum Chambers (knee), Gabriel Martinelli (knee), Mesut Ozil (not expected to feature), Pablo Mari (ankle), Matteo Guendouzi (unlikely to feature) and Edward Nketiah (suspended).
Omissions for Manchester City: Sergio Aguero (recuperation from knee operation), Claudio Bravo, and Joao Cancelo (late fitness tests).
Predicted Team for the Arsenal vs Manchester City Game: 3-4-3
Martinez; Luiz, Holding, Mustafi; Tierney, Xhaka, Willock, Bellerin; Nelson, Aubameyang, Pepe.
Preferred Team for the Arsenal vs Manchester City Game: 3-4-3
Martinez; Mustafi, Luiz, Tierney; Bellerin, Ceballos, Xhaka, Saka; Nelson, Lacazette; Aubameyang.