Ahead of tonight’s game against Man City, it was interesting to listen to Mikel Arteta’s assessment of the importance of the result.
From an Arsenal perspective, he said:
If we win tomorrow night we haven’t won the league, for sure.
I think that’s right. It’d give us a great chance, but it would be a long way from being over. And when asked if a City win would make them the strong favourites, he replied:
It will shift a little bit, probably, in the percentage. But five games in this league, with the games we both have to play, are very tricky still.
I understand why he’s saying it, and let’s not forget City would have seven games to play with two Champions League semi-finals to contend with too, but I think if they win tonight they’ll go on and win the league. They’ve done it before, they have the experience, the quality, and the depth to do it again. It wouldn’t be impossible that another outcome could transpire, but I wouldn’t feel confident about that.
I strongly suspect that privately the manager might admit a City win would shift the percentage quite considerably, much more than a little bit, but publicly that’s just something he can’t say for very obvious reasons. However, I am curious to see how it might impact what he does tonight with his team.
The last three games have been disappointing, and while we’ve scored two goals away from home twice, and three at home, defensive issues mean they haven’t been enough to secure wins. Three successive draws feels like a bit of a disaster when you know every misstep is going to allow a team like City to get closer. The question is, does he tinker with his line-up this evening, or keep faith that they can put this blip in form, if you want to call it that, behind them?
He could think of the game against Man City at the Emirates where, despite the fact we were beaten 3-1, we played in a way which saw the lowest possession a Pep Guardiola side has ever had in a Premier League game, as well as the lowest pass completion. Small comfort when you lose, but something to think about nonetheless. That night we had William Saliba at the back, but there was no Thomas Partey in midfield so Jorginho deputised, while Eddie Nketiah started up front. Tonight it’s likely to be Gabriel Jesus.
He could think of the first 40 minutes at Anfield where without Saliba we played so well against Liverpool until we let in a silly goal and the momentum turned. He could think about how well we started at West Ham, going 2-0 up early on, before conceding a silly penalty, before missing one of our own. A spot kick that would probably have shifted the momentum back our way.
At the same time, the way those games changed and the frailties we showed might make him consider something different. A change to try and refocus his players. With Arteta, nothing is too surprising. If we stuck with what we’ve been doing, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Similarly, it wouldn’t shock me at all if we shifted to a 3-4-3 tonight. A back three of Ben White, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney/Kiwior, with Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka ahead of them might be an idea.
Against Southampton on Friday night, Partey dropped in deep to pick up the ball and start play from the right centre-back space, and I think that told us something about how we’re not quite the same in build-up with Rob Holding as opposed to Saliba. You can’t do that at City away, which is what makes me wonder if we’ll see that kind of change this evening. If we have those concerns for a home game against the side bottom of the table, they won’t be diminished in any way at the Etihad.
Arteta was asked if he was considering a change in his press conference yesterday, and said with a smile, “We’ll see tomorrow!”. Which could mean something is in the works, or nothing at all. The propensity for these two managers to try and do something the other wouldn’t expect has been evident in almost every encounter since Arteta took over at Arsenal, so maybe the old-switcheroo is to do nothing at all. I’m tying myself in knots over this, we’ll just have to wait and see what kind of line-up drops this evening.
As for what kind of performance we’ll get, I wish I could tell you, to offer some words of reassurance and comfort that would get us through today without the nerves building and the stomach churning. All I can say is that we’ve got to where we are this season because we are good. We’ve won away at Chelsea, won away at White Hart Lane, taken a point at Anfield, beaten Liverpool at home, beaten United at home, beaten Brighton away, this is a team capable of taking points in difficult games.
But there isn’t anything as difficult as this one. It’s been too long since we won there, that Santi Cazorla performance is almost mythical at this stage. Maybe we need someone else to do that this evening. Maybe we just need to get a bit of luck, withstand an onslaught, and grab a scrappy goal to to win it. Whatever happens, I don’t think we can lose it and go on and win this title, so that has to be part of the way Arteta manages this game too. The temptation to go hell for leather if it’s tight late on would be obvious, but the risk/reward there might be too high when a point could, quite conceivably, be useful given City’s packed schedule. And that’s the difficulty for them, not necessarily the quality of the opposition they’ll be facing in the Premier League at least.
I think we have what it takes to get something. We players who can cause problems and score goals, but at the same time we’ve been a bit vulnerable of late and it’s impossible to ignore that. All I can say is I hope we do ourselves justice this evening. Arteta is right to say we’ve gone toe to toe with a team we thought were light years ahead of us when we faced them in the league last season. And that’s because they were. We’ve come a long way since, and let’s hope our Hyperdrive is working later on.
For now, I hope your day isn’t too consumed by the nerves. Come. On. You. Gunners.