So this is it: the biggest game of the season so far. After the previous biggest game of the season so far, and the one before that, and the other BGOTSs we’ve had up until this point.
This one is a bit special though. Originally scheduled for September, we would have faced Man City in a period of excellent form, with more or less our full squad available. Now, we’re suffering a relative blip in form, we don’t have our main striker, and there’s a tension because of recent results/performances, and the fact we are well and truly in the throes of a title race. That brings a very unique kind of pressure.
Nobody said this was going to be easy though. Tonight, we face a different side from the ones who have frustrated us in recent weeks. City won’t come to sit in a low block, they will come for the ball and to play. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to say that it might suit us to face a side of such outstanding quality, but it does make some sense. Where there’s ambition from the opposition, there’s space to exploit if you can get the men and the ball into it.
Having stuck with the same starting XI during this difficult period, you could make a case for a couple of changes tonight to spark something. Leandro Trossard’s goal against Brentford might well put him in the frame, but when asked about it at his press conference, Mikel Arteta said:
That’s more determined by results but for us, it’s more about performances and what players have given us to take us to the position we are in today. They deserve opportunities. Obviously we are looking to give players opportunities that they deserve. You talked about Leo – we’re talking about anybody who has had minutes in this league. There will be changes – it will happen and very soon.
It sounds to me like he’s keen to give the players who got us to this point a chance to do it in this game. If they’ve helped us win against at home against Liverpool and Man Utd, and Chelsea and Sp*rs away, he might feel like they merit the opportunity to take on the champions. I can understand that, to be honest, but the vagaries of form have to play a part too. My guess right now is that this will be an unchanged team from the one he picked against Brentford.
He could well view this as the kind of game that might rekindle the form of one or two. It’s not as if we’re replete with options, without Gabriel Jesus and Emile Smith Rowe, we don’t have a collection of players banging on the door to give you alternatives. I suppose the one player who looks least like himself at the moment is Gabriel Martinelli, but I wonder if City’s right back would be a lot happier if he were on the bench. Let’s see.
It’s almost redundant to say the atmosphere will be important this evening. The manager’s comments about the weekend’s shambolic officiating were considered and measured, but leave in no doubt as to the anger felt by Lee Mason’s monumental cock-up. When you also consider that this game last season was impacted significantly by a red card for Gabriel – whose first yellow was for nothing at all – and a tale of two VAR penalties, you can understand completely why Arteta has made his position so clear. When you use words like integrity and professionalism, you’re not exactly obfuscating, even if they’re delivered calmly.
But he also made the point about how the support inside the stadium can benefit the team:
We’ll play with 15 players tomorrow! They [the fans] are so into it with every single ball and giving us energy and support, and basically everything they have been doing. Let’s enjoy it, a beautiful night on a really special day.
It should be loud. This will be a crowd fueled by injustice after the weekend, unwilling to tolerate any refereeing nonsense, and let’s hope there’s none of that. But more importantly, this will be a crowd fully behind this team as they look to get a result against opposition who have caused us a lot of pain in recent seasons. Not to mention that this time around the stakes are higher than many would have expected this season. If you’re going, make some noise.
As for what would constitute a good result: a win would be amazing, magnificent, thrilling, and all of that. I would pay good money for three points now. The last couple of games have made this feel like a must-win game – but I don’t think it is. I would love it, don’t get me wrong, but with a lead at the top and a game in hand, it’s as much in the must-not-lose category for me.
City would go top with a win this evening. That’s a reality of the fixture and the pressure we’re facing. It would strike something of a psychological blow in this title race too. The inevitability of City yet again chasing down the contender blah blah blah. But keeping them at arm’s length, knowing we can extend our lead if we win our game in hand is something they’ll have to deal with.
Of course, Mikel Arteta isn’t going to tell his team to play for a draw, it’s basically impossible to do in this context, but if we have to dig deep to get something from this one, let’s hope that provides the extra motivation required to make it happen. Today is going to be a nervy one, butterflies and all the rest, but come this evening let’s hope we see the best version of Arsenal because if we do we’ve demonstrated we’ve got enough about us to get something from this one.
For more: the preview podcast is on Patreon now. As ever we’ll have the live blog and post-game coverage on Arseblog News.
Come on you reds!