With two defeats already this season, ideally you’d go into the Interlull on the back of a comfortable win to settle the nerves a bit, and to just calm everyone down. Ideally, you wouldn’t be playing Man City in that particular game, but … here we are.
We’re back to this feeling of how, logically, we’re unlikely to get anything from today simply because they are much better than us, but emotionally that still won’t soften the blow at the end of the 90 minutes. Two weeks of introspection before we play again in the Premier League is something nobody wants or needs, but there’s only one way to avoid that (to its fullest extent anyway), and that’s doing something we haven’t done since January 2015 – winning at their place.
The Arteta/Guardiola narrative that accompanies this fixture has been done to death at this point, but there is something vaguely interesting about it in that our manager did lead his team to a win over Man City in the FA Cup semi-final in 2020. Last season both games finished just 1-0 to City, and while I don’t think anyone would argue we looked like causing them too many problems, that kind of encounter again gives you a chance. Even for City a single goal lead is a precarious one. If we can produce a moment of quality; if there’s a mistake at the back; if – and I know this one is really hard to imagine, but bear with me – we’re awarded a penalty; we could nick something.
Again, it frustrates me that that is the mindset, but it’s also realistic. We obviously have aspirations or ambitions to be better, but we’re not right now, and sadly that has to inform the plan and how we approach a game like this. Quite what that plan is today, I don’t know. The two managers know each other very well and tend to go a bit Galaxy Brain when they meet.
“Haha, he’ll never think of me doing this!”, one might say, and that’s true because playing Willian as a False 9 would be like trying to shave your beard with an angle grinder. I don’t know that Arteta has the ability or the goodwill to do something like that today, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility his line-up will contain some kind of surprise.
He does have a goalscoring Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang available to him, and I beseech him to play him as the striker and not a shuttle-running left-sided attacker. I suspect it’ll probably be a frustratingly low-touch afternoon for the captain, but as he showed against West Brom if you get him into the right areas and get the ball there too, he can do what needs to be done.
The three behind him will be interesting. With Martin Odegaard now available, and hopefully primed to start after an hour on Wednesday, it means one of the quartet of Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, and Pepe has to miss out. Which one will it be? Can’t we play 12 players, just make things a bit more even? I hope Albert Sambi Lokonga keeps his place in midfield, and today would be a good day for Granit Xhaka to repay some of the faith Arteta clearly has in him after giving him a contract extension.
At the back, without Ben White and Gabriel (who played for the U23s yesterday), the only centre-half options are Rob Holding and Pablo Mari … unless you want to start Sead Kolasinac, and while the Spaniard has had a difficult start to the season, I definitely don’t want to do that. Pick one from the line-up of right backs, and I have a feeling we might see Hector Bellerin today.
As for City, even without Kevin de Bruyne, the array of talent is ridiculous. Silva, Gundogan, Sterling, Grealish, Mahrez, Jesus .. etc. They come into this one having spanked Norwich 5-0 in their last game, and I’m curious as to how our defence is going to cope with a team that may lack a Lukaku-esque focal point up front but which contains multiple angles of attack.
Arteta is under no illusions as to how difficult it will be, but did sound a confident note about today’s game when asked about what he was expecting:
It’s the level that they read the game and the level that you have to be mentally ready for, to run for long periods of the game without touching the ball to sacrifice and being prepared to suffer in the right moments. But as well, having the conviction that we’re going to have moments in the game and when those opportunities arise, we will have to take them and that’s how I want to see the team. They are fully committed, fully prepared, and they believe that we can go to Manchester and get the result that we want.
Look, it’s very unlikely but also not impossible. Football is weird and strange and throws up results you don’t expect. It’s just right now we’re a team which pretty much does exactly what you’d expect all the time. All we can do is keep fingers crossed that City have an off-day, we play as well as we can, and perhaps get a decent break somewhere along the way. A couple of early red cards for them would be a delight.
Catch you later!