Manchester City will look to pick up where they left off in the Premier League on Sunday, as they journey away to Arsenal optimistic of their chances of becoming the first team in ten years to win back-to-back titles and defend their league crown. At the Emirates Stadium however, Pep Guardiola and his men will be met with an equally positive atmosphere, as a much-needed rejuvenation project gets underway at Arsenal under the watchful eye of new manager Unai Emery.
Yet with a shiny Community Shield already under his belt, Guardiola will not be fazed into altering the line-up too heavily, rather aiming to bring in important players where needed to take the first top six scalp of the season…
Despite some assured performances over the pre-season, the near-calamitous errors returned to haunt Claudio Bravo in the Community Shield, namely misjudging the flight of an incoming ball to almost let it bounce over him into his own net. What better reality check to allow the reintroduction of Ederson, who after spending a summer deputising to new Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, will be raring to get back between the sticks. Indeed, should he mark his return to the squad with a big performance, idle comparisons might become true debate as to which of the two shot-stoppers should be called Brazil’s best.
After some uncertainty surrounding whether we would see the return of three at the back versus Chelsea, Pep’s decision to stick with the more tried and tested four-man defence surely revealed which system he has more confidence in at present. Now with a big opening fixture against another top six side, change is even less likely, whereby likewise the dynamic duo of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte will continue to marshall the backline based on their commanding performances last weekend. To take a leaf out of Guardiola’s own philosophy, players merit minutes based on their performances, and with both defenders playing critical part in initiating the moves that lead to both goals at Wembley, Stones and Laporte have done more than enough to start in London once more.
City’s defensive wide-men will have perhaps the most integral roles against Unai Emery’s Gunners. Though known to be more penetrative than protective as a right back, Kyle Walker may just find himself the most under threat at the weekend, given Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s tendency to play on the left flank for Arsenal. With both him and Alexandre Lacazette fully fit, Walker’s pace will be pivotal to countering a team that will look to do exactly that, exploiting quick transitions when City lose the ball high up the pitch.
However, unlike last season, Walker will not be the only fleet-footed full back in the sky blue, with Benjamin Mendy having put his injury troubles behind him to find a regular berth at left back before him. Arsenal’s right flank does not pose the same goal threat as Aubameyang, instead giving Mendy slightly more license to execute his trademark marauding runs along the wing should the opportunity arise. If the Community Shield served as reminder of just how dangerous the Frenchman can be, then Mendy’s ‘second debut’ season could see City discover a whole new dynamic with the addition of the his raw power to the side.
Moving up into the midfield is where I think we will find the most prominent change to the squad, coupled with the most familiarity. There should be no surprises to see Fernandinho occupying his regular role as midfield anchor, though there will be increased scrutiny on the Brazilian due to the failure to secure a high-quality alternative in the summer transfer window. An opening fixture against Arsenal will be exactly where Fernandinho wants to be however, as though he will possibly be protected more in smaller games this season, his big game ability remains unquestioned.
The most notable change to the team that faced Chelsea is to be the addition of a one Kevin De Bruyne. Though young Phil Foden got his season off to a dream start with an assist at Wembley Stadium, it will be a statement of intent to see the brilliant Belgian take to the field at the start of the new season. After returning slightly later to Manchester following an exhaustive World Cup and learning of a second child on the way, De Bruyne was nonetheless hailed as having returned in “the perfect way” by Guardiola, and ready to be involved at the weekend. Whether the comments were meant more physically or mentally, the return of an increasingly mature De Bruyne spells nothing but trouble for any opposition, his lethal combination of engine and ingenuity able to turn the game on its head at a moment’s notice.
The other central position is sure to be occupied by Bernardo Silva. With his electricity in the middle of the park the highlight of both pre-season and the Community Shield, the Portugal international has more than staked his claim to feature in the opening fixture (which is no mean feat in keeping a certain other Silva out). Finding himself flanked by De Bruyne as a midfield partner and with former Monaco teammate Mendy on his immediate left, the interplay could be fascinating to watch as ‘Bubblegum’ looks to make the midfield pop and a starting place stick.
The front line could feasibly change the most, with pretty much every forward player bar Raheem Sterling making an appearance against Chelsea and looking relatively fit. The most certain to start has to be Sergio Agüero though, who after netting two goals the other day will be eager to get his goal tally up and running for the season’s Golden Boot race. With Guardiola stating the Argentine finds himself at his best fitness levels in years, Arsenal ought to be wary of Agüero, whose ability to kick off the season’s proceedings is marked by his tally of six goals on opening weekend, the joint fifth highest of all time. Two goals on Sunday would place Kun on par with legends such as Alan Shearer, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, all with eight goals, whilst a hat-trick would see him break records.
Either side of Agüero will be Leroy Sané and Riyad Mahrez on the left and right wings respectively. Having taken a slight knock that forced him off at half time at Wembley, it could be that the German comes on from the bench as a precaution here. However, an instant recovery in training and a terrifying plethora of highlights against Hector Bellerin means that it could be too good of an opportunity to leave Sané out, as his fine footwork and flair could prove a lethal weapon against an unfamiliar and unsteady defensive line-up at the Emirates. This will only be compounded by Mahrez on the other wing, who can only grow further into his new role at City. Albeit the Algerian is not in a different position to that he occupied at Leicester, yet a bedding period is to be expected for Mahrez to fully click with the Guardiola’s possession-heavy tactics. Finding more opportunities on the ball can only be a bonus to a player of Mahrez’s considerable talents though – it is merely a matter of time before he elevates himself, and the team, even further.
The bench makes for an intriguing affair, as it could make for good commentary as to which players may be the most heavily involved in the coming season, and likewise to what extent. The first name remains Claudio Bravo, remaining vigilant yet most likely unused. Most likely to be called into action will be Raheem Sterling, who like De Bruyne, Guardiola commended as having arrived in the perfect fashion. The arrival of Mahrez this summer places considerable pressure on Raheem, and how he reacts to the competition will be essential to continuing both the squad performance and harmony of last season. Next to him will be Gabriel Jesus, who will have to be equally as sharp in order to sustain the pressure on Arsenal up front should Sergio not have the game he wants. Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany certainly enjoyed different fortunes in the World Cup, yet both find themselves on the bench here to combat any hasty returns for either. Ilkay Gündogan will be the preferred option to step in for Fernandinho if need be, having anchored against Arsenal in both last seasons’s away fixture and the Carabao Cup final. Finally, who else could round out a Manchester City contingent but the immeasurable David Silva. Merlin is deserving of any amount of rest Guardiola affords him after the personal stresses suffered last season. However, such is the brilliance of his partnership with Kevin De Bruyne, don’t expect it to be too long before he returns to action.