Saturday, June 15, 2024

Question marks on team selection, questions to answer at the Etihad

Ok, so here we go. The waiting is over, football is back, and back in earnest as we take on Man City at the Etihad this afternoon.

Let’s start with the team, and while there are some question marks in some positions, others seem relative simple to predict. I don’t see any change to the back four unless there’s a problem with Gabriel. That would then give Mikel Arteta some serious thinking to do. He could move Jakub Kiwior to the centre, and play Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back, although I have some suspicion he’s not fully fit because he didn’t start for Ukraine in their big international play-off final.

Another option would be Takehiro Tomiyasu, either at left-back or, as would be my preference if he was fit, in the centre where he plays regularly for Japan but having been out for so long, it’d be a big reintroduction. Fingers crossed for Big Gabi though, his partnership alongside William Saliba is a key component to this team’s solidity, so let’s hope he makes it.

In midfield, I think we’ll see Jorginho and Declan Rice together again. The Italian international started the game at the Emirates earlier in the season, and on a day like today his experience is even more important than ever. At this point of the season, against opposition like this, being able to deal with the pressure of the game and the occasion is vital, and he’s been there and done that plenty in his career. Depending on how the two are deployed, it could see Rice further forward, perhaps in more close combat with Rodri than he might be if he played as the 6.

Martin Odegaard picks himself ahead of those two, and I while I don’t think it’s down to one man – because any good result is more likely if the collective effort is where it needs to be – he, more than anyone else in this side, has the ability to unlock a tight game. We saw that in the second leg against Porto, and if Man City are in any way vulnerable these days, it’s in the areas where he likes to operate and send the ball.

I reckon it’ll be Kai Havertz up front, his recent good form is obvious, and his physical presence gives us a different kind of option against City – one we haven’t really had when playing them in recent years. It’s who is going to play either side of him that’s the big question. If fit Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli are the obvious choices, but both have question marks over them. I suspect it’s a bigger one for latter, and I expect the former to start – but his withdrawal from England duty does worry me a bit.

If Martinelli isn’t available (from the start or otherwise), I’d be quite keen – again fitness permitting – to see Gabriel Jesus on the left ahead of Leandro Trossard. It’s no slight on the Belgian, but without Kyle Walker, that might be an area we can exploit. Jesus has played there a lot in his career, mostly for City, and he’s another one who has plenty of big game experience and temperament. Trossard is also a player who can make an impact from the bench if needed, so if possible, I’d keep him in reserve.

On today’s game, Mikel Arteta says:

It’s a massive game for both teams, that’s for sure, because it will give us a huge push again if we go there and win it, but I still feel there is a long, long way after to make all the ground to win it.

Obviously a win would be huge in the context of the title race, but we shouldn’t underestimate just how hard it is to do that. Since the start of the 2021-22 season, Man City have lost just one game three times at home, and we have a record there which doesn’t look very good. One of the ways we’ve made progress under Arteta has been putting right some of  those long-standing records, so let’s hope we can do that again today, but even with a couple of injuries, they are going to be an incredibly hard team to beat. We’ll need to be at our very best to do it (and hopeful of no external nonsense in the process).

Maybe Pep Guardiola has given his opposite number a little bit of ammunition, suggesting it’s ‘easy’ to challenge for one title, whereas doing it season after season is worthy of more praise. He might be right about that, but fans know why they’ve been able to do that, and I’m sure Arteta will use everything he can get his players up for this. It’s not exactly dismissive from Guardiola, but it cements the reality that we are here to challenge their dominance, and today would genuinely resonate if we come away with all three points.

That said, I don’t think a draw would be a bad result either. It’d be better for Liverpool than either Arsenal or Man City would like, but that’s not something we can worry about too much. With still 9 games to go after this one, I don’t think it’s 100% a title decider, but it’s a game that could go some way to dictate who ends up champions. A win would be such a boost in terms of points and confidence, while losing there again would cast doubts in the minds of many observers – and perhaps within the team too.

It feels huge though, and I firmly believe that this is a team better equipped to go to Man City and give a good account of ourselves. Too often in the recent past we’ve bemoaned key absences and injuries as reasons for performances there, but hopefully today that won’t be an issue. We’ve beaten them twice this season, in the Community Shield and the Premier League, and if we could make it a hat-trick today, it’d be a massive moment in this title race.

As always, we’ll have live blog coverage, and all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News. Until then, enjoy your Sunday.

Till later.

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