Inside the Opposition

Inside the Opposition: Arsenal vs. Man City (Predicted XI, Man to Watch, Opposition View)

We are finally back, and the long wait is over. Manchester City make their return to competitive and proper football this weekend with a tough trip to Arsenal on the cards. For the first time in over 20 years, Arsenal enter a season without Arsene Wenger in the dugout. He was replaced by Unai Emery, which essentially means they are going to be much more defensively prepared than they have been in the past.

Predicted Starting XI

Arsenal finally decided to demote Petr Cech, something that should have been done a long time ago. Cech made more errors leading to a goal than any other Premier League keeper last season, so Bernd Leno is a welcome addition to the squad.

Arsenal’s central defence pairing will likely be Mustafi and Sokratis due to the fact Laurent Koscielny is injured, and this is a vulnerable pairing. Mustafi lacks the assertiveness to be considered a great option in the Premier League, and Sokratis plainly struggled at Dortmund and was unpopular with their fans.

The full backs will both be given the license to bomb on as Unai Emery relies on high levels of production from his full backs. In midfield, the addition of Lucas Torreira allows Arsenal to be a more balanced unit. Last year they were destroyed against good teams because Granit Xhaka was used as the deepest midfielder, and I’m not sure he has a defensive-minded bone in his entire body. He should thrive, and his long passes in behind will be something Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker will have to look out for.

In the final third, Unai Emery has been experimenting with a 4-2-3-1 that incorporates a poacher in a wide role. Alexandre Lacazette has been the more nailed on number 9 throughout pre-season and he will stay central, allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to drift in from wide positions. Aubameyang will likely play a similar role to what Raheem Sterling does for Manchester City, as his movement and pace will be the main attribute in the final third.

Player to watch

I’ve defended Granit Xhaka a lot, and I feel he is the key to Arsenal winning this game. Putting Xhaka in a holding role would be like putting Leroy Sane at wing back. It looks like a good idea at one end of the pitch but it’s a complete disaster at the other. Xhaka was excellent at Gladbach alongside Christoph Kramer, and I think Lucas Torreira’s arrival is the key to unlocking Arsenal’s full potential as a midfield unit.

City usually defend Mesut Ozil relatively well as Fernandinho does well against more traditional number 10s, so Xhaka will be the key to linking everything in Unai Emery’s 4-2-3-1.

Xhaka is very good at floating balls into drifting wide players. At Gladbach he was notorious for hitting raumdeuters in stride. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy both have the pace to deal with this problem, but I am fascinated to see if Pep game plans for Granit Xhaka. He is familiar with his game from his time as manager of Bayern Munich, and we’ve simply got to account for his passing range.

Opposition View

For the interview portion of this feature, I spoke to social media influencer and die-hard Arsenal fan Frankie Hobbs. Frankie works for the Goat Agency, and is an Arsenal blogger when he has the time.

This is the first year in over 20 years that Arsene Wenger isn’t sitting in the Arsenal home dugout – what are your feelings towards Wenger, notably the end of his reign?

You have to respect Arsene Wenger and everything he did for Arsenal Football Club. 3 Premier League titles and 7 FA Cups signify an incredible haul, and when combined with his overall impact on the English game it’s hard not to hold him in high regard. Sure, his reign probably lasted anywhere between 2 and 10 years too long, but his dedication and desire for the club to succeed and his passion for football was unprecedented. Whatever your thoughts on him, he will be missed on touchlines around the country this season.

Unai Emery’s appointment came as a surprise and it hasn’t exactly been widely praised by the media of by fans – how do you feel about the appointment?

It’s an odd one. On paper, it should be a solid appointment to see Arsenal through the post-Wenger era, but it’s perhaps not as exciting as it could have been.

Unai Emery comes to the club off the back of three European trophies and a whole host of honours with Paris Saint-Germain. He was perhaps not fancied to take the Parisians to European glory, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a smart, young manager that can take Arsenal back to the Champions League. It probably isn’t widely known that Emery is the same age as media darling Mauricio Pochettino, who is seen as a young manager with a host of potential.

Mikel Arteta was heavily linked – and reportedly close to being offered the job – but I think the job probably came at least 18 months too early for him. Emery provides solidity and experience at a time when Arsenal need it.

Arsenal finally signed a defensive mid! They signed Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria, how much of an impact do you think having a proper CDM will have on the likes of Granit Xhaka?

Granit Xhaka is not an out and out defensive midfielder and it’s refreshing to finally see the club go out and get one. I can’t profess to be an expert on Lucas Torreira but from everything I’ve read and seen during the World Cup, he ticks a lot of boxes for us. 

Torreira’s energy and strength in the tackle should give Xhaka the freedom to do what he does best: build the play from deep. It’s not been an easy start to life in England for Xhaka – but there is a very good footballer in there somewhere. His discipline will often get brought up but he didn’t recieve a red card throughout 2017-18 and his performances towards the end of the season were very encouraging. If he can lean on Torreira for the defensive side of the game, I see no reason why Xhaka can’t break out and prove his worth at the Emirates this year. 

Arsenal have some really talented youth in the squad at the moment such as Konstantinos Mavropanos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, how big of a role will they play this season?

Despite being one of the richest clubs in Europe, Arsenal still can’t quite compete with the likes of Manchester City or Manchester United in terms of budgets. Emery needs to find ways of bridging that gap with young players. Luckily for him, there are some fantastic prospects coming through at Arsenal that should shine this season. 

Ainsley Maitland-Niles is one of the most confident and assured players I’ve ever seen at his young age. The confidence and calmness he has on the ball is well beyond his years and his versatility should mean he gets a lot of minutes this season. 

The one to really watch this season is Reiss Nelson. Arsenal lack width in the squad and the 18-year old provides that. He’s flirted with breaking through for the past 12 months but with two solid pre-seasons under his belt and a gap in the team, there is no time like the present. The position on the right is there for Nelson to make his own, and with minutes in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, he’ll get the opportunities. 

You have two natural strikers in Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Aubameyang has been playing out wide in pre-season, do you think these players can co-exist at the same time all season?

Having one striker of Aubameyang or Lacazette’s quality in a team is fantastic. Having two is even better. 

Aubameyang played a lot from the left towards the end of last season and notched up almost a goal a game. He can play from there and still be incredibly effective. Having said that, I don’t think we should read too much into starting positions – just getting both of them on the pitch at the same time is going to cause defences nightmares. 

What is really nice to see is that they both seem to get on incredibly well and want each other to succeed. I didn’t really know what to expect from Aubameyang and had heard from Dortmund fans that he could be a troublemaker, but it has been the complete opposite. From the outside looking in, it looks like the Gabonese forward has completely changed the mood around the dressing room.

The question was can Aubameyang and Lacazette co-exist. The answer is that Arsenal will need them to, in order to have a good season.

In my personal predictions I have Arsenal getting top four, what is your expectation/prediction for Arsenal this season?

Anywhere from 3rd to 6th is realistic. Getting back among Europe’s elite has to be the aim for Emery and it’s certainly possible. Chelsea look like imploding; Mourinho looks like he’s had enough at Manchester United and Spurs have yet to sign anyone yet and we’re fast approaching the deadline. The only two teams I can’t envisage Arsenal finishing above are Manchester City and Liverpool. They will be the teams to beat this season. If I had to predict, I think we’ll just miss out and finish 5th.

Finally, what do you think the final score will be?

As much as I think Manchester City are the favourites to win the Premier League and Champions League this season, Arsenal are a tough team to beat at home and have been for the past few years. Not many sides go to the Emirates at win – although Pep Guardiola’s side did do that last year…

The Gunners will come out firing under their new manager and will start well, only to be pegged back by City’s irresistible quality. Score draw seems a safe bet.

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