Mikel Arteta previews Arsenal's clash with Man City
The Premier League season arrives at its first significant staging post today. The Arsenal versus Manchester City showdown at the Emirates will offer a window into how the season may develop, a clue maybe as to whether there will be a title race at all.
If Arsenal want to convince themselves, never mind anyone else, that they are a team equipped to wrestle the trophy off City this season, they need to land a blow on the champions. Had they beaten City twice instead of losing home and away, Arsenal would have won the league last season.
Those losses – by a combined margin of 7-2 – made it 12 straight league defeats to Pep Guardiola’s side – the sort of return which fosters a justified inferiority complex. A season is a lot more than just two head to head fixtures but somehow Arsenal have to stop the rot.
The Community Shield penalty shootout win was a start but this is where it really matters. There are two reasons to be optimistic for Arsenal. They have Declan Rice and City do not have Rodri. As the glue which holds the whole City edifice together, Rodri is arguably their most important player – and that includes Erling Haaland.
The suspended Spaniard has blossomed into the world’s best holding midfielder under Guardiola. Rice, though, is not far behind. Two months into his Arsenal career, the former West Ham captain has already paid down part of his club record £105m transfer fee with his early performances.
If the injury time winner against Manchester United was the showstopper, it has been his grittier attributes which have helped upgrade Arsenal and propel them to their best league start for 16 years. The difference in Arsenal when Rice went off with a back problem against Spurs – especially with no Thomas Partey to fill the hole – was substantial.
He has made ten interceptions already for his new club in the Premier League, three more than any teammate. Only Bukayo Saka has made more tackles. Rice has carried the ball more than any other Arsenal player this season too.
His physical presence and his reading of the play make him almost two players in one. In terms of the control he brings and the regulation of the side’s tempo, he is like a midfield traffic light with an unerringly accurate red, amber and green setting.
For Arsenal the sight of City has represented an abrupt stop sign. They have a couple of FA Cup wins but league dates with Pep’s footballing polymaths have proved as fruitless as a November bramble pick.
Arsenal are not alone in that experience of course in the Guardiola era. This season City have been tested internally by events but they have managed the departure of captain Ilkay Gundogan and the long-term loss to injury of Kevin de Bruyne with the assuredness you would expect of a winning machine.
The defeat at Molineux last weekend was a bolt from the blue but, outstanding though the result was for the home side, there was an element of freakishness about it since City had 23 shots in the game to Wolves’ three. If City were to lose again today it would mark their first back-to-back defeats in the league for almost five years – a staggering statistic which underlines the extent of their dominance.
For the health of English football City – champions for five of the past six years – could do with some competition at the top. Yawn many might at the Old Firm duopoly north of the border but there has been the same level of diversity when it comes to Premier League champions over that period.
With the two other most successful sides of the Premier League era Manchester United and Chelsea off the pace, the challenge will have to come from elsewhere. Newcastle will only grow stronger but are acclimatising to the balancing act that being in the Champions League involves.
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Liverpool look more like their real selves and could give it a crack, Newcastle likewise but the early evidence is that it is likely to come down to Arsenal to keep City honest. For all the disappointment of surrendering an eight-point lead to City last season, the reality was that Mikel Arteta’s side overachieved in finishing runners-up.
This time around with their squad strengthening – and in particular the addition of Rice – second place would be more of a par score for them. Faced with the best side in Europe though, the leap to first is a colossal one. Today we get to find out how realistic a proposition that is.
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