The Premier League is officially past the half-way mark...sort of. With the Omicron variant throwing a wrench into the gears of a fair amount of the clubs in the league, Arsenal managed to escape the postponement party until this week, when positive COVID tests and injuries in Wolverhampton’s camp put Tuesday’s match at the Emirates on the back burner.
Despite positives of their own, Arsenal managed their last fixture of the calendar year without issue with a commanding 5-0 battering of Norwich to finish off 2021. The entire right-back room were forced into quarantine with positive tests ahead of the match, which gave us the rare (but entertaining) Ben White at Right Back experience. But the show went on, and the Gunners also went off, much to the delight of Arsenal fans everywhere.
And now, in a strangely poetic way, we are right back where we started when the league took an extended break in 2020, with Mikel Arteta once again testing positive for COVID-19. A league-wide break seems unlikely, but the hits nevertheless persists, as Mikel Arteta will be phoning it in as Arsenal welcome Pep Guardiola’s white-hot Manchester City to London to kick off 2022.
At this point, City are less “club” and more “relentless killing machine that also happens to play soccer.” Their latest victory, a uncharacteristically tense 1-0 win away at Brentford, was their 10th straight win in the league, and their 47 points over 20 matches puts them 8 points clear of 2nd placed Chelsea.
But it’s not just that City are winning - they are doing so by huge margins. Their goal differential is +40. For context, there are only three teams in the entire Premiere League that have scored 40 goals in general. Over their last five matches, City have scored 19 goals - nearly 4 goals per match. Oh, and then there’s also their usual dominating possession and suffocating high-press. So that’s fun.
Even after Arsenal finally discovered their scoring touch, the most optimistic part of me can’t see this playing out well for Arsenal. Arteta’s absence is a huge blow to the Gunners, most of the quarantined players have yet to return to training, and City are perhaps the most in-form team in the world. They have such a talented two-deep rotation that Pep can to do silly things like not make a single substitution during a match, which happened during the Brentford win.
That’s not to say that there isn’t anything working to the Gunners’ advantage. The postponement of the Wolves match means Arsenal received a much-needed rest between Boxing Day and the City match, rest that City did not get. City are also not without their own wounded - Kyle Walker, John Stones, and Rodri have been missing from action for the last two matches, although all three could be available on Saturday. Home field advantage has been tremendous for Arsenal this season, and the return to the Emirates can’t be anything but a boon for a team that has not been home for a league match in over two weeks.
For Arsenal to win, they will need every player to be at their best, especially the midfield pivot of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey. Both players have looked markedly better in recent matches, but the quality of opponents were a far cry from what they will be up against on Saturday. City dominate through the midfield. They aren’t particularly pacey or physical, but they will pass you into oblivion by way of Kevin De Bruyne and press you into submission.
City are largely the same team they were when they dominated Arsenal for a full 90 minutes in September, but the Gunners are an entirely different beast. The attack is more direct without Pierre Emerick Aubameyang leading the line, and the youth have been scintillating up front. Martin Odegaard is becoming the creator we all hoped he could be, and Gabriel Martinelli plays like he has been fired out of a cannon. After a dire barren spell, the Gunners are finally playing like a team in the hunt for a top four spot.
I fully expect Arsenal to lose on Saturday. Painful as it may be, recent history against City does not paint a positive picture. Add into that Arteta’s absence and COVID, the picture becomes downright bleak. Arsenal can make a huge statement with a win on Saturday, but it will not come easy. The Gunners will not get anywhere without taking chances and taking the game to the Cityzens. If Arsenal sit back and concede possession too readily, it could be a long morning at the Emirates. But crazier things have happened. Can we see a New Year’s Day miracle?
WHAT: Arsenal vs Manchester City
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
WHEN: 7:30am EST/4:30am PST/12:30pm GMT
HOW TO WATCH: Live broadcast on the USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com.
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