Key players, predictions and more
Few would have predicted that Arsenal would lead the English Premier League title race this season, yet Mikel Arteta’s side have been one of the most exciting teams to watch as they attempt to wrangle the title away from defending champions Manchester City, who have won it four times in the past five seasons.
Going into Wednesday’s showdown between the two, Arsenal lead in first place with 75 points, while Man City trail on 70 points but with two games in hand. Arsenal are stuttering after three straight consecutive draws, the latest in a dramatic 3-3 comeback against last-place Southampton, leaving the door open for Man City in the title race.
The stakes couldn’t be higher ahead of this match, as the winner will likely go on to be crowned champions at the end of the season. ESPN’s correspondents Rob Dawson and James Olley answer your burning questions and share their predictions, which players to watch and more.
What state are Man City in going into the match?
Dawson: Pep Guardiola’s team have gone through spells where they haven’t looked convincing, but that late-season run of form has finally arrived. City haven’t lost since early February and a 10-game winning streak was ended only by a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich that was enough to earn a place in the Champions League semifinals. They’re defending well in Guardiola’s hybrid back three/back four system and also scoring goals. Erling Haaland has got 15 in his past eight matches with the FA Cup semifinal against Sheffield United on Saturday ending a run of goals in seven successive games.
Guardiola has said repeatedly that Arsenal are favorites to win the title because of their position at the top of the table, but he’ll be quite happy with how the run-in is going, particularly after Arsenal’s run of three straight draws to drop six points in two weeks.
City have been in this position so many times over the past 10 years that they won’t be fazed by a crucial game against their title rivals in mid-April. They’re playing well, key players are fit and in form, and they’ll go into the game at the Etihad Stadium as favorites, and for good reason.
What state are Arsenal in going into the match?
Olley: Perilous. The contrast in mood compared to a fortnight ago is stark. By drawing their past three matches, Arsenal have stuttered to the extent the dynamic around Wednesday’s game has shifted markedly. It is no longer the free hit the Gunners could tell themselves it was when they had a bigger lead at the top.
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Never has a five-point advantage felt so fragile. The knowledge that a defeat on Wednesday will leave City in pole position to win the title only heightens the feeling that momentum is slipping away from them at the wrong time. Arsenal scored twice in the final three minutes of normal time to salvage a point against Southampton on Friday, but at the full-time whistle, the vast majority of players collapsed to the floor deflated.
Perhaps the mental exertions of a title race are beginning to leave their mark, but at the same time, they knew a point against the Premier League’s bottom team wasn’t really enough. Yet at the same time, they should take heart from the starts made in their past two away games at Liverpool and West Ham, where they breezed into 2-0 leads thanks to more of the exhilarating, devastating football which has given them a shot at the club’s first title since 2004. Manager Mikel Arteta’s challenge will be to harness the positivity of those spells and produce a complete performance at arguably the toughest place to go in Europe.
What will Guardiola and Arteta learn from each other?
Dawson: Guardiola and Arteta know each other well from their time together at City, but Arteta still managed to surprise his former boss in the FA Cup tie in January by playing a man-to-man system all over the pitch. Other teams have tried it in the past, but the inference from Guardiola afterward was that he didn’t expect it from Arteta, and it might put a seed of doubt in his mind ahead of the game on Wednesday. It might mean City having to bypass the midfield more than they would like with goalkeeper Ederson given orders to go long to Haaland if he can’t see a short pass.
Olley: Arteta does not hide the fact he is a Guardiola disciple and there are many similarities between the two sides in terms of how they try to control matches. One of the most obvious traits Arteta has taken is utilising Oleksandr Zinchenko — a former City player — in an unorthodox midfield role when in possession.
Zinchenko drifts infield from his left-back position to help overload opponents and dominate possession in central areas. It is something Guardiola did first with Joao Cancelo and a tactic he has reprised of late with John Stones on the opposite flank, coming in off the right to effectively operate as an extra midfielder.
Just one fascinating aspect of Wednesday’s game is whether Arteta will alter his approach in any way or have the courage of his convictions to attack City as they have every other team this season. How Zinchenko is used will be a big indication.
Who are the key players?
Dawson: Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne are the obvious ones, because if they play well, City usually win, but John Stones is key to Guardiola’s system. Rested against Sheffield United at the weekend, the expectation is that he will start at right-back with freedom to push into midfield next to Rodri and allow Ilkay Gundogan to get forward.
Guardiola will be worried about the pace and movement of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli in wide areas, but he has already trusted Stones against Leroy Sane, Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry and Jamal Musiala when they played Bayern.
Dawson: Never seen anything like record-equalling Haaland
Rob Dawson watches Erling Haaland equal Mohamed Salah’s record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season, with eight games to spare.
Olley: Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard have provided Arsenal’s creative heartbeat this season. Each will be vital on Wednesday, Saka and Martinelli for their pace and penetration on the counter-attack, Odegaard for his composure on the ball under pressure.
Getting the balance right between attack and defense will be essential to Arsenal’s chances of hurting City. There have been signs of late that this burden of leading the charge is taking a toll on Saka and Martinelli, but the pair still both scored against Southampton and they will need to be at their best to maximise what could be limited opportunities to punish City on the break.
Who will each team miss most?
Dawson: One of the reasons City look so formidable at the moment is that they don’t have injuries. Ederson, Ruben Dias, Rodri, Stones and De Bruyne will all come back into the team after they were rested against Sheffield United while Phil Foden played the final 20 minutes at Wembley after recovering from an appendix operation.
Riyad Mahrez has made a case to start after scoring a hat-trick at the weekend and Guardiola has the luxury of being able to pick from a fully fit squad at a time of the season when lots of other managers have selection problems.
Olley: William Saliba. The Frenchman was forced off with a back injury 21 minutes into Arsenal’s Europa League last 16, second-leg clash with Sporting Lisbon on March 16 (when they were winning). Since then, the Gunners have exited Europe, dropped six points in the Premier League and failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their matches. It is too simplistic to explain Arsenal’s recent wobble solely through Saliba’s absence, but there is little doubt they look more vulnerable defensively without his calming, composed presence.
Saliba’s regular centre-back partner, Gabriel Magalhaes, has appeared particularly destabilised while Rob Holding is an adequate but limited deputy: he was fortunate a clumsy challenge to gift Liverpool a second-half penalty at Anfield was not punished as Mohamed Salah sent the resulting spot-kick wide of goal. Holding also cannot build out from the back with the same skill at Saliba. Arteta is cagey over Saliba’s return date so his involvement is not entirely ruled out, but the recent updates have been downbeat.
What is your match prediction?
Dawson: City have already beaten Arsenal twice this season and it’ll be a surprise if they don’t make it three out of three. Haaland looks unstoppable, which means Arsenal will have to score at least twice to win and City haven’t conceded twice in a game since beating Tottenham 4-2 on Jan. 19. Arsenal’s confidence is fragile and it could be a heavy 4-0 win for City.
Olley: Both teams score, but City win 3-1. This will likely be played at a furious pace as both try to establish control of the ball to manipulate the other out of position. City gave Arsenal a little bit of a schooling in the second half of the reverse fixture, and although the stakes are higher this time, their proven class under pressure can tell.
What is your title prediction?
Dawson: After Arsenal, City still have to play Chelsea at home and Brighton away before the end of the season, but there’s nothing in the run-in that will scare them. The Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid is a complication, but there’s a good chance City can go through the rest of the season unbeaten and emulate Manchester United‘s treble from 1999.
Olley: I went for Manchester City in August and will stick with them now. Their experience has started to tell in recent weeks and it is feasible they could win every game from here. As brilliant as Arsenal have been all season, Newcastle away in early May looks another tough ask, and with key players showing signs of dipping in form at the wrong time, they might just fall short of the title.