In a staple showdown of the holiday season, Manchester City and Arsenal will face off Sunday with both teams going all out for a full three points. After Chelsea beat Crystal Palace on Saturday morning, neither team will settle for a draw.
There are a number of factors that could determine the clash at the Etihad. Pep Guardiola and his unpredictability has been the subject of much gossip in the media but his experience against Arsenal while at Barcelona and Bayern Munich should give City supporters confidence.
Here are three aspects of preparation and play that could make a difference when Arsenal enters the Etihad:
1 - Formation
City looked more stable with a traditional back four against Watford but there are a few reasons to suspect that doesn’t mean Pep won’t unveil a more experimental formation against Arsenal.
Despite their lethal ability to score goals, the Gunners are often seen as vulnerable when put under pressure, so Pep’s use of three at the back with more advanced midfielders almost seems plausible.
However, it does appear that the manager might be tinkering with a slightly more conservative defensive approach after the thrashing at Leicester City last weekend. With a more basic setup, City could build on the confidence gained in the win over Watford by ensuring that Arsenal’s pace and passing are kept under control.
All this considered, the Sky Blues could emerge with a 4-2-3-1 on Sunday with either Nolito or Kelechi Iheanacho up front. Taking the field in a 4-3-3 (really 4-1-2-3) could be slightly more advantageous.
The squad is still looking to display appropriate strength in the both boxes. While this depends heavily on player selection in addition to tactical formation, the stability of a back four with a holding midfielder could slow Arsenal’s attack enough to give the Sky Blues the advantage.
Regardless of who plays in attacking positions, City will need to coordinate quickly. Under the current regime of rotating players and changing formations, the 4-3-3 system could allow for greater coordination in advancing towards the final third.
2 - Key Players
As always, Kevin De Bruyne could (and should) hold the keys to clinching three points. It took time for him to get engaged against Watford but his determination and wit are major factors in City’s quest to score more goals. If he and Silva take central positions in front of the holding mid (4-1-2-3), Arsenal’s defense could be penetrated by a balance of incisive runs and width through the wings.
Iheanacho, Nolito, or a surprise pick for striker (anything is possible with Pep, it seems), will be looking to achieve City’s primary objective of finding the back of the net with greater frequency.
The determination to capitalize on possession will require immediate coordination despite continued changes in the lineup.
Raheem Sterling needs to replicate his form from the meeting with Watford. If he has shown confidence since Guardiola’s arrival, his performance on in midweek was a signal of even greater potential. He demonstrated an ability to cut in from the wing and looked more threatening than ever in creating clear shots towards the net.
Leroy Sané continues to prove his worth with pace and determination. He looked a little more confident in defensive responsibilities but could play a major role in keeping Arsenal off balance.
If Yaya Touré is selected, a 4-2-3-1 would be more likely with Yaya playing next to/slightly ahead of Fernando. The Ivorian veteran's presence would definitely provide a certain degree of stability, but his lack of pace and ferocity might make him more of a potential for mixing up the approach late in the game.
3 - ‘The Watford Approach’ vs. ‘Barça at the Etihad Approach’
In the game against Watford, City looked better prepared to control counter attacks, balls in the air, etc. While this brought a good deal of relief to Sky Blue supporters, we know that Guardiola’s men will look to dominate possession in order to unsettle the Gunners.
Arsenal’s goalscoring capabilities are unquestionable. Serious threats in the form of Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil and others will require City defenders to remain vigilant.
We can look at Barcelona and their visit in the Champions League as a potential template for Sunday. Making sure that Arsenal’s main weapons are neutralized and countering with quick attacks through David Silva, De Bruyne and Sterling could bring great elation to the Etihad.
One way or another, City’s XI need to play with the feeling that has helped them to conquer adversity this season. The manager and a number of players have alluded to the mentality that helped them to conquer Barcelona and we can only hope that they approach Arsenal with similar vigor.
Guardiola is no stranger to Arsene Wenger’s style and is undoubtedly preparing his squad to respect the Gunner’s threats. At the same time, City will want to play with the character and personality that has led to the greatest moments in the early stages of the Pep Project.