On paper, Sunday’s game against Manchester City, the current champions of England if you needed reminding, is the most difficult we will play all season in the league.
It is a great test to see where this team is at, whether ambitions of a proper title challenge are realistic or not, whether suggestions of an improved defensive solitude are premature.
Yet the feeling in my gut — somewhere near the epic Margherita pizza I scoffed down earlier, the last solid food I will be having for a few days after having my wisdom teeth out — is that we’re catching them at a good time.
While City sit level with us on the table with two wins from two draws, they’ve had a surprisingly disorganised start to the season. They’ve shipped six goals in the league, including a total of five against Liverpool, Stoke and Southampton, teams we have made to look toothless in attack, as well as three in the mid-week Champions League game against Madrid. In fact, they’re yet to keep a clean sheet this season.
City looked horrendous defensively in the last thirty minutes in Spain and threw away a 2-1 lead with five minutes to play. It was something of a crazy game, five goals scored in a 25-minute period is an anomaly at this level, but it is telling that City were unable to dictate the pace of the game once they took the lead.
In contrast, our boys have looked fluid in attack and solid in defence, switching effortlessly between an adventurous 4-2-3-1 and disciplined 4-4-1-1 formation with and without possession. The counter-attack has been utilised more effectively and the system has got the best out of Santi Cazorla, who has been superb in all five games. We were tested strongly by Montpellier, but our defence held relatively firm and squeaked out a positive result.
We are not playing perfect football but we look well-prepared for the challenges that City will pose. Despite their topsy-turvy start to the season City are still potent in attack and tend to turn up for the big games, as a club stacked full of big-name talent should. Yaya Toure was immense against Madrid and he has a habit for scoring important goals. He is one in particular who needs to be watched.
We have no new injury concerns going into this match. Wojciech Szczesny has been confirmed as out for a further three weeks, giving Vito Mannone an opportunity to further stake his claim as a genuine first-choice goalkeeper, while our squad should be virtually identical to the one that traveled to France. Nevertheless Arséne Wenger will have some decisions to make given the quality of our opposition.
The back four has remained unchanged for the opening five games this season but the availability of Laurent Koscielny, our best defender, poses an interesting question. Does Arsene Wenger stick with the defensive line-up that has functioned so effectively or bring in the French defender to cope with City’s pace up front? The latter is a distinct possibility, regardless of how well Per Mertesacker has performed.
Further afield rotation is possibly, but less likely in midfield than attack. Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby both started against Montpellier and I expect them to back-up, while Santi Cazorla, our most important creative player, is a certainty to play. The key decision for me is around our forward structure: will we see Olivier Giroud or a more fluid, unpredictable front three featuring Gervinho as the central striker?
We gave City a hell of a match last season away from home. We troubled them for large periods but came away 1-0 losers. What’s more, we beat them by the same scoreline at the Emirates late on in the season. They are obviously a team we are capable of beating and as I said before, I believe we are catching them at a good time.
Predictions are a tricky thing and I would much rather hold my tongue and just watch the game unfold. Needless to say, I would absolutely love it if we knocked off City but I think any realistic supporter would be happy with a draw. The thought Santi Cazorla pulling the strings and orchestrating a victory is a very, very sweet one.
Enjoy the game wherever you might be watching.