By Brendon Netto
During the embryonic stage of this season, there have been plenty of questions surrounding two clubs in particular, Manchester City and Arsenal. The two most common of those questions being, whether Arsenal can cope with the loss of Robin Van Persie and whether City can handle the pressures that go with being the defending Premier League champions. This weekend promises to answer many of our queries as the two sides prepare to face each other.
Following last summer’s deadline day trolley dash, Arsene Wenger set about preparing for the inevitable departure of his skipper early on in the transfer window. The acquisitions of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were a step in the right direction but with only Marouane Chamakh left in reserve; Arsenal’s striking options still appear scarce. Signing the brilliant Santi Cazorla reassured their fans but losing Alex Song still enabled the skeptics to question Wenger’s transfer policy.
Cazorla is a deadly force in the attacking third but the misfiring Giroud points to the fact that the striking department may not be able to effectively replace Van Persie just yet but then again, maybe they don’t have to. Steve Bould is perhaps Wenger’s most important appointment this summer albeit the one that attracted the least attention.
The 49-year old, who got promoted from being the coach of Arsenal U-18 side to being the assistant manager, has clearly made a huge impact to Arsenal’s organization without the ball. The ex-Arsenal defender has ensured that the back four keeps their shape while he has also gotten the whole team to defend as a unit. Rather than flooding forward with all guns blazing and leaving themselves susceptible to the counter-attack, Arsenal are now more calculated when venturing forward and are disciplined enough when tracking back.
At this juncture last season, Arsenal had already conceded 14 goals from their opening 5 games (excluding the Champions League play-offs). In stark contrast, they have shipped just 2 goals in their first 5 games of this campaign. If Arsenal can keep things tight consistently this season, they may not require a striker who can score 37 goals for them. Barring the emphatic 6-1 result against Southampton, which can be considered a freak score-line, Arsenal may not score luxuriously but should be able to score sufficiently this season. A number of their attacking players will be contributing to the ‘goals for’ column rather than one player filling it up almost exclusively.
However let’s not get too carried away with the Gunners’ recent defensive displays. Bould has successfully tutored the players in the fundamentals of defending – don’t over-commit in attack and keep your shape in defence; things that really should be elementary to top class players but evidently weren’t last season. So before we proclaim Bould a tactical genius, let’s observe how Arsenal defend against the potent attacking threat of Manchester City and indeed for the rest of the season.
Manchester City are witnessing their once raved about defence dwindle and fall victim to even lesser opposition with the likes of Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers (QPR) managing to breach it. In their first six games this season (including the Community Shield), they have conceded 11 goals, a wildly uncharacteristic tally given that they only shipped in 29 during their entire league campaign last season.
Roberto Mancini threw a tantrum in the middle of the summer over the absence of any recruits at the Etihad stadium. Unsurprisingly, a flurry of transfers followed with the club spending over £40 million although that remains a small figure by their standards.
His unsuccessful attempts to sign Daniel Agger from Liverpool made it evident that he was seeking to bolster his options in defence. Mancini’s attempts to find the best formula for his side by employing a 3-5-2 formation at times may have contributed to the disruption in the back line so far this season.
Against Real Madrid, City were guilty of sitting too deep and hence invited the hosts to shoot on 35 different occasions. Given that they will be at home against Arsenal, the Blues will be expected to defend higher up the pitch but they will still have to put more pressure on the ball than they did at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Another weakness in the City's defence that came to the fore against Los Blancos was the poor display of new arrival, Maicon. Cristiano Ronaldo terrorized the Brazilian all night who remains effective in the opponent’s half but vulnerable in his own. However, the 31 year-old is unlikely to play three games in a week so he should be out of contention for Sunday.
Although his replacement, Pablo Zabaleta didn’t have the best time against the Portuguese superstar either as he allowed him to cut inside and score a last gasp winner in stoppage time. The Argentine will have to be on his toes against Lukas Podolski’s diagonal runs between the full back and central defender on the weekend. Reinstating the experienced central defensive partnership of Joleon Lescott alongside Vincent Kompany will be essential.
The fact that both teams travelled away from home for their European fixtures on the same night, rules out an opportunity for the cynics to complain about either side’s advantage in that regard. If Arsenal are to announce themselves as challengers to the league title and not just pretenders, then a result on Sunday would go a long way to doing just that. Their defence will face their first real test against City’s star-studded attack. The Citizens on the other hand, will have to take the initiative at home and send out a warning to the rest of the league that they intend to defend their title as vigorously as they fought to attain it.
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