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Manchester City vs. Arsenal: With the Premier League title possibly on the line, injuries could be decisive

It’s one last opportunity for two of the Premier League’s title contenders to lay a glove on each other. There will doubtless be moments where the race for first swings from one team’s favor to the other in the nine matches that follow Manchester City’s meeting with Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, but there may be no match between now and May 19 that proves to be as significant a pivot point.

Most projection systems agree that if there is a winner as the sun sets in the north west then that side will be at least co-favorites for the title with Liverpool, perhaps the team to catch. City, undefeated by this team at the Etihad over the last nine years, of course, go into the game as favorites, but this time Arsenal can travel north with belief. They’ve beaten them once already in the league this season and lifted the Community Shield after a penalty shootout back in August. Here is what we’ll be keeping an eye out for in the buildup to and during Sunday’s big game:

Will the big battles actually happen?

So, after two weeks where players ducked out of international commitments by the day to get back to their clubs, who is still standing for this last great clash between the title contenders? For Manchester City the last few days have been particularly perturbing, even if it has been suggested that Ederson and Kevin De Bruyne might be ok. Manuel Akanji left the Swiss camp with a knock while both Kyle Walker and John Stones limped out of England friendlies, one in the first half of each match. As the numbers have grown so has the skepticism as to the severity of some of those issues; certainly it would not be a surprise to see a team sheet missing one or more of the defensive trio at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Take two or three out and Pep Guardiola’s insistence on running a small squad, sometimes with only one player who can perform the particular role he requires, can become a vulnerability. There is no one quite as effective as Stones in the City squad, perhaps in the sport, at stepping out from center back to form a double pivot. In general, when the England international has been sidelined — as he has frequently this season — it has been Akanji who has stepped out from the back alongside Ruben Dias, solidly if not quite as effectively. Take both them out and there isn’t really a right sided center back who can do that role.

The absence of Walker might be just as profound though that really depends on Arsenal’s situation too. Mikel Arteta is sweating on the fitness of three key players: Gabriel, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. The latter, the match winner when these sides met at the Emirates Stadium in October, might be the player whose absence is most keenly felt, particularly if the Gunners are facing off against a Walker-less City.

Martinelli’s excoriating darts at the heart of the City defense back on New Year’s Day 2022 might go down as the moment this fixture moved from a biannual beatdown to something that can at least be a meeting of equals when Arsenal are at full strength. Walker hasn’t forgotten the damage the young Brazilian can do, back in October he named Martinelli and Jeremy Doku as the two fastest players in the Premier League after himself.

Martinelli missed two games after a painful cut to his foot in the thrashing of Sheffield United on March 4. Though club sources have pushed back at more outlandish speculation over a return date, it is by no means guaranteed he will be recovered in time to play a full role at the Etihad Stadium. Meanwhile, the withdrawals of Gabriel and Saka from the Brazil and England squad might have been more precautionary in nature, but both are dealing with genuine issues. Arsenal beat City without the latter, but you wouldn’t like to try repeating that trick. Gabriel, meanwhile, has quietly been one of the Premier League’s best players. Even if the backup for an injured center back is better this season than it was last, Arsenal’s chances of quelling Erling Haaland would look all the greater if they had their star defensive pairing on the field.

It is, of course, the nature of these season defining spring clashes that neither side is ever at full tilt. Manchester City have played 45 games already this season, Arsenal 40. For the Gunners, who have never really taken to the field at the Etihad Stadium at full strength, the absence of one, but particularly both, of their star wingers would be keenly felt, all the more so if Guardiola is light a few defenders. For the neutral, these are the individual battles you want to see when Europe’s two best sides face off. Martinelli vs. Walker, Haaland vs. Saliba and Gabriel, De Bruyne vs. whoever thinks they can stop him. Having these players on the pitch is the best chance there is that this game catches alight.

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Another stalemate awaits

That might, however, be a forlorn hope. For those at the Emirates Stadium several months ago, Arsenal’s single goal win was an absorbing, tense affair that only ever felt an instant away from bursting into life. This was the footballing equivalent of one of the world’s great live acts, something like Radiohead at Glastonbury or Madison Square Garden. If you were in the thick of it you could not take your eyes away for a moment, watching on from afar it did not feel like anyone was going to any great lengths to entertain you. (This column is firmly in the former camp both for football matches and headline slots. If you don’t enjoy them you just need to understand the game better. Yes, this is intellectual snobbery. And what?)

Even those who enjoyed the game would have to acknowledge it was one where caution was the defining trait of both sides. City registered just four shots, only two after the fifth minute. Arsenal might have taken plenty more, but their 12 were somehow worth fewer expected goals than City, 0.39 to 0.48. Both sides were far, far below average for touches in the opposition box, but what was particularly apparent is how infrequently they stole possession near the danger area.

City’s three final third recoveries is the lowest of their season so far — level with their weird draw with Crystal Palace — while Arsenal tend to get the ball back more than five times. Even within that number are more balls bouncing their way in the midfield area then genuinely dangerous interceptions. Arsenal probably only had one final third recovery that would have felt like a perilous moment, when Ruben Dias cleared the ball to the feet of Oleksandr Zinchenko. Even then, every possible pass ahead of him was to a team mate covered by a City defender.

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Zinchenko intercepts a clearance in what might be a dangerous area but there are too many City defenders back Wyscout/Premier League

By the time he gets the ball under his control and passes to Martin Odegaard, City’s second defensive line is already moving into position. Arsenal have no choice but to recycle possession backwards. It is a nondescript moment that typifies the game. Both sides were simply too respectful of their opponent to let themselves get caught chasing possession in dangerous areas.

There is nothing to suggest that this will change at the Etihad Stadium, even if both sides are a little weakened. The gamble of aggressive pressing is just too great when both City and Arsenal can not only pass their way around it but thump the ball over the top. It might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Guardiola was harking back to early Premier League heritage when his side took Arsenal to the cleaners in last season’s title decider, but the goal that set the stage for the win was prime route one: center back hits it long to big guy, who knocks it down for the other center forward to win the second ball, charge through and score. In the last two seasons Ederson has averaged around 10 long passes per 90 Premier League minutes. Against Arsenal that number doubles.

The difference between this season and last is that Arsenal can now match that approach. Kai Havertz has had great success when deployed as the center forward, a role he is expected to retain on Sunday even with Gabriel Jesus fit again. In the Community Shield he was an almighty handful for the City defense and even in a brief cameo in the league match he delivered a moment of prime center forward play, holding off Nathan Ake to claim a bouncing ball and tee up Martinelli for the deflected winner. Havertz’s 47.9 percent aerial duel success might not blow you away on first glance, but it puts him ahead of — to name a few Premier League post up stars — Ivan Toney, Chris Wood and one Erling Braut Haaland. Add David Raya’s composure under pressure and his ability to hit his man when he goes long, and you have another team that can go through, around or over any press.

Given that this also happens to be a game where a draw is an eminently adequate result for both sides, prepare yourself to convince yourself that this is a game you’re enjoying.

How does Arteta construct his midfield?

Diving deeper into the minutiae of this game can be something of a thankless task. It’s hard enough to know how Guardiola is going to line up for a big game when he can pick whoever he wants, any constraints placed on him by injury might just make him try a more radical step away from the narrow front three that he deployed since De Bruyne’s return to fitness.

With Arsenal, there is a degree more predictability. Arteta learned a lot from his time as Guardiola’s assistant, it would be fair to say that so far he has not displayed much of his former boss’ tinkering tendencies. If all the fitness doubts break in his favor, Arteta’s XI is almost entirely predictable, even in areas of depth such as central midfield. Perhaps if Thomas Partey had been fit this season there would be a debate to be had, but if all three are fit and Arsenal do not take to the Etihad field with a trio of Jorginho, Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard, you have my permission to dunk on this piece in the quote tweets until the end of time.

The intrigue lies in how Arteta deploys Jorginho and Rice. For most of the last month those two have lined up in a way reflected by Arsenal’s pass map against Newcastle below, the veteran Italian doing what he has done for a lifetime, dictating play as the regista. Rice, meanwhile, functions as the fifth man in Arsenal’s 2-3-5/3-2-5, the £105 million man publicly relishing the chance to occasionally be the furthest forward in the Gunners’ attack. Those roles are not immutable, however, and one of Arteta’s great triumphs in the win over Liverpool was how he used a more advanced Jorginho to hem his opposition in.

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Arsenal pass networks in two recent games. Note how against Liverpool Jorginho (No.20) becomes relatively more advanced relative to Rice (No.41) TruMedia

If Arteta were to ape that approach that downed his other title rival, it would suggest that he is prepared to press, no matter the risks laid out above. There are other options available, ones which will give a clearer sense of how Arsenal intend to approach the match. At the Emirates both Jorginho and Rice sat deep to quell City’s pressure in central areas, meaning more was asked of Ben White as an orthodox up and down the flank right back. That reflected a team looking to make short, sharp jabs at their opponent but who would not risk conceding to find a winner.

Does the same ring true on Sunday when three points might well make them title favorites? Will it all depend on the outcome a few hours earlier when Liverpool host Brighton? This game is one with more questions than most. Come the final whistle it should have answered plenty not just about Arsenal and City but the title race as a whole.

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