These are the sort of days us club football supporters live for. We know that after today we will fall in a dark club-football abyss with yet another fortnight of international football on the cards. But today it is a football feast as we travel to the money-for-glory Northern-Oilers, who are flying high on their investments in both (probably) the best manager in the game and a fabulous squad of players. They are flying higher than Icarus once did, so let’s present them with hellish, blinding, relentless canon fire and bring them back down to earth.
Wenger has a good record against Guardiola, despite always being the poorer manager of the two, and from the interview with him on Arsenal.com we know that he has been preparing well for this pivotal match. A win would be just what we and the competition needs…. and a loss would create a massive gap between them and us – one that we are very unlikely to bridge during the large remainder of the season.
Arsene does not want to sit back and absorb City’s pressure for 90 minutes, but he also realises that we cannot impose our game on them, as this would leave too much space for Guardiola’s men to attack us with ease and deadly consequences as soon as we lose the ball in midfield.
Wenger’s best game against Guardiola was our 2-1 win against Barcelona at home a long time ago (it seems). Who does not remember the Wilshere-Fabregas instigated counter-attack from deep in our own half that was finished so brilliantly by Arshavin? I reckon our best chance to beat MC is once again by fighting them in midfield tooth and nail and sitting back as our base position. We need to be able to keep the ball when we have it and pass our way out of their suffocating press. In my view, Arsene needs to play five in midfield with one/two mobile attacker(s) ready to be at the end of a counter-attack or receive the ball from over the top. We need to keep them away from our ‘D’ area and protect our flanks by doubling up, or even tripling up.
Alternatively, and Wenger may well be tempted to do this, we can opt to push them back in their half and play our game – similar to what we did against the Chavs in the FA Cup final. But I hope we do not try this.
If there is a weakness at MC it is their CBs, and the likes of Alexis, Lacazette, or even Theo, could cause a real threat in this game. I would opt for Alexis and Lacazette in attack, but Wenger may be tempted to play Theo up-top for his added speed and ruthlessness when a ball is played over the top.
At the back we are likely to see Cech-Nacho-BFG-Koz, as Mustafi still appears to be unfit. The BFG is a brilliant organiser and interceptor and his lack of speed will not be exposed too much as long as we play compact at the back, and a lot deeper than usual (which is to be expected).
The big decisions Wenger has to make are what formation will we play and who to play in midfield. Luckily, he has plenty of options with Jack, Rambo, Ozil, Elneny, Xhaka, Bellerin, Kolasinac and Coquelin, and even Debuchy, all available. Wenger may stick with 3-4-3 on paper but surely we will see a compact formation that looks more like 3-6-1 or 4-5-1 or 5-3-2, or, most possibly 3-5-2.
In terms of midfielders, Wenger will have to go with experience, ability to control the ball in tight areas and passing skills. Ozil is a sure start. Kolasinac is a sure start. Rambo is a sure start (but his discipline will be a key factor). Xhaka and Hector are question marks. The former may struggle with the lack of space afforded to him, but then again he is the one who can play a ball over the top with precision… The latter is still a work in progress and his final ball when he is attacking is not yet good enough.
My gut feeling is that Jack may start in this game, possibly next to Rambo in the centre of midfield, or next to Xhaka with Rambo playing on the right side of midfield. We need proper, ball-loving midfielders in midfield for this one. So my predicted line-up is as below, with both Mesut and Alexis playing a little deeper than usual so we can win the battle in midfield.
Come on You Rip Roaring Gunners!