Unai Emery’s reign began in earnest against Manchester City. The champions visited the Emirates Stadium in August and won 2-0. If Sunday’s rematch at the Etihad Stadium is essential for City, with less margin for error in the title race after defeat to Newcastle, it offers a chance to assess Arsenal’s progress in the subsequent six months.
City have won their last four games against Arsenal, scoring 11 goals. It highlights how one of Emery’s tasks is to improve Arsenal’s results against the best. He has started to do that at home, recording wins over Tottenham and Chelsea within a couple of months. He has a solitary point from three visits to top-six rivals.
It will be intriguing if Emery revisits a recent tactic in major clashes. He used Aaron Ramsey at the tip of a midfield diamond to great effect against Chelsea (and, arguably, in the FA Cup tie with Manchester United, when the Welshman was excellent despite defeat) and, while he was benched for Mesut Ozil against Cardiff on Tuesday, he should be restored to the side.
Ramsey’s impact against Chelsea, may not be measured by the numbers alone: he had just 31 touches. Yet Twelve’s map of his key contributions is revealing: while he has a reputation as an attacking midfielder, they are all defensive. Emery pitted Ramsey against Jorginho, getting him to hassle and harry the Chelsea playmaker.
A diagram of his off-the-ball work (as seen in yellow when unticking ‘only important actions’ on the below dashboard) shows he operated in Jorginho’s sphere of influence. The fact City were interested in Jorginho last summer makes it all the more tempting to wonder if Ramsey will be asked to reprise that role against Fernandinho, the man the Italian could have understudied.
They were immediate opponents in August, when an ineffectual Ramsey was replaced after just 53 minutes. He has assumed more importance of late. And yet, while Fernandinho has proved irreplaceable for City, their gameplan is not as dependent on him as Chelsea’s is on Jorginho. Both regular centre-backs, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, average more passes a game. City can bypass Fernandinho, if he is marked, to get the ball to the two No.8s.
No system is perfect and, if Emery plays a 4-diamond-2, it could afford space on the sides. That could be doubly dangerous against City: both of their wingers are famously productive. While Leroy Sané was only a substitute against Arsenal in August, both of City’s goals still stemmed from his flank, with left-back Benjamin Mendy recording two assists. Since then, Sané has reclaimed his place and his form.
His Premier League season has produced eight goals and nine assists. But, as his Twelve map for the campaign shows, he also does much of his work near the touchline, where full-backs can lack protection in a system without midfield width. It threatens to be a particular problem for Arsenal, without the injured right-back Hector Bellerin.
But an advantage of Emery’s 4-diamond-2 is that it allows him to select both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette as strikers. It can work against a team with attacking full-backs, as Arsenal themselves discovered in the FA Cup last week, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played split strikers with Romelu Lukaku in a slightly wider role.
It is how Lacazette has played when paired with Aubameyang. A map of his important contributions in the games against Burnley, Brighton and Chelsea shows how he has operated at times in the channel between centre-back and full-back. City’s full-backs tend to advance, but they may need to tuck in more than usual.
If Emery, short of players in defence, faces the wrong sort of selection dilemmas, Pep Guardiola may have the right kind. Bernardo Silva has scored in his last two appearances against Arsenal. Kevin de Bruyne has not started a top-six match this season. That could change, and it is worth rewinding to Arsenal’s last trip to the Etihad.
City won 3-1 in November 2017 and De Bruyne was a scorer and outstanding. Looking at his performance that day (and unticking ‘only important actions’) shows the scale of his involvement, from box to box, but also from side to side, as he took turns in both No. 8 positions, either side of Fernandinho. It shows that even if Ramsey marks the Brazilian, stopping City involves far more than that.