It’s no secret that Manchester City’s midfield was crucial to their Premier League title win last season, but a 2-0 victory over Chelsea in last weekend’s Community Shield showed that actually, Pep Guardiola’s engine room isn’t as dependent on the sheer talent of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as we may think.
Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden were almost equally as imperious against the Blues at Wembley, and it seems to be the setup as much as the personnel – with two roaming No.8s ahead of an energetic anchor man – that causes City’s opponents so many problems.
So, with Arsenal kicking off their Premier League campaign by hosting the reigning champions this Sunday, we look at three ways in which the Gunners can stop City’s rampant engine room from inspiring yet another City victory…
While Silva and De Bruyne lapped up most of the credit last season, it was actually Fernandinho who kept the engine room ticking over – making the most passes of any Manchester City midfielder in the Premier League. The Brazilian performs a tough job incredibly well, marshalling the middle of the park practically on his own to allow Silva and De Bruyne to take up more offensive positions, but at the age of 33 perhaps this is the season when his levels begin to naturally wane.
Manchester City showed to great effect last weekend how devastating it can be to win the ball off the deepest-lying midfielder around the halfway line, often springing traps on Chelsea’s new anchorman Jorginho, and if Arsenal can pull off a similar execution when Fernandinho’s on the ball they’ll make turnovers in some really dangerous areas.
Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will naturally be closest to Fernandinho but aren’t really suited to closing the opposition down, so this ploy may require some unorthodox personnel. Danny Welbeck, who Arsenal were reported to be listening to offers for earlier this week, once put in an impeccable performance for Manchester United man marking Xabi Alonso in the Champions League – perhaps its time to bring the versatile forward in from the cold and give him a shock start on Sunday.
There’s always safety in numbers so considering how much of City’s attacking play stems from their midfield hub, the smartest counteraction would be to simply overload that area of the pitch with as many bodies as possible in a bid to disrupt their passing game with a defensive-minded midfield diamond – three deep-lying midfielders sitting behind a playmaker to provide the link to the centre-forwards.
Arsenal do have the personnel for it too; there aren’t actually that many natural wide men in the squad, with youngsters Reiss Nelson and Alex Iwobi amongst the more obvious options, but there are an abundance of central midfielders ranging from new signing Lucas Torreira to the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Ozil and Mkhitaryan.
Perhaps those three are a little too offensive to all fit into a deep-lying setup, but Torreira alongside Mohamed Elneny and perhaps new signing Matteo Guendouzi, while not being the most inspiring midfield trio on paper, could have the energy and aggression to get the job done.
Manchester City are arguably the best in the world at what they do, but sometimes it feels as if opponents get lost in the aura of Guardiola’s domineering side and end up surrendering the game before a ball is actually kicked – Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium last season is probably the most obvious example of this. In contrast, when teams decided to take the game to City last season, they certainly managed to cause them a few problems. Liverpool beat them thrice and even Championship side Bristol City came close to defying the odds in the League Cup with an offensive, high-octane brand of football.
Arsene Wenger never really managed to get that same level of intensity from his attacking players, which is a large part of the reason why the Gunners have fallen away in recent years despite the level of technical ability within the squad. But this is a new era and Arsenal’s stars will be eager to impress their new manager, so rather than looking at ways to counteract City’s midfield perhaps the north Londoners should be concentrating on causing their Sunday opponents problems by playing Guardiola at his own game.
Tactically, that requires two incredibly offensive central midfielders who look to stage attacks whenever possible playing in front of a single anchorman who, like Fernandinho, will be left with a pretty big job on his hands. It’s of course not as easy as it sounds, or everybody would be playing City’s brand of football every week, but it will create an incredibly open game. With home advantage on their side and two lethal forwards in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal may just come out on top in what would be a straight up end-to-end shootout at the Emirates Stadium.
So, Arsenal fans, how would you try to stop City’s rampant midfield? Let us know by voting below…