Preview: Manchester City vs. Arsenal

Manchester City head to the Emirates to face Arsenal Sunday, albeit with about 900 fewer supporters than expected as they voice their displeasure over the 62 pound ticket prices Arsenal will be charging for this 'Category A' fixture.

Since Sheikh Mansour's takeover of Manchester City the storylines that have surrounded this fixture have been intriguing- a clash between the nouveau riche Manchester City, who in recent seasons have lured the likes of Samir Nasri, Emanuel Adebayor and Gael Clichy away from Arsenal with higher wages, and Arsenal, the poster child for football clubs living within their means. However, their recent clashes at the Emirates have not lived up to their Category A status.

As Michael Cox wrote in his column for Soccernet today, Roberto Mancini has taken a very cautious approach to this fixture over the last few seasons, resulting in cagey, dull contests. Mancini has visited Arsenal in the league three times since taking over at City in 2009. The first two of those contests ended 0-0; Arsenal edged out a 1-0 win last season (City haven't registered a league goal at Arsenal since the 2006-2007 season). City sat deep and employed three defensive minded midfielders for most of those three games.

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The absence of Yaya Toure, on international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations, means Mancini will be forced to use two defensive minded holding midfielders in Javier Garcia and Gareth Barry, raising concerns among neutrals that Mancini will again be tempted into trying to make this a cautious contest. Samir Nasri is serving the final game of a three match suspension so James Milner is likely to start on the right wing. Sergio Aguero will miss out with a hamstring injury- Carlos Tevez will play just off of Edin Dzeko.

There are more questions surrounding Arsene Wenger's selections, particularly who he'll start at forward and on the right wing. Olivier Giroud picked up a slight knock against Swansea last weekend so there's a good chance Wenger will continue with Walcott through the middle. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played 70 minutes for the under-21's Wednesday, suggesting we could see Aaron Ramsey take his place on the right. 

City Cautious Approach
Arsenal are a more dangerous side when games become open. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski and Walcott thrive in games when there is enough space to use their pace to get in behind the opposition defense. There's a good chance that in the early stages, playing away from home and with key attacking players absent, Mancini will retain his cautious approach at the Emirates and maintain a compact defense to prevent the game from opening up too much. City won't have the attacking thrust of Toure through the middle and James Milner is more trusty foot soldier than creative attacker on the right: City will therefore only have 3 truly attack minded players on the field- Tevez, Dzeko and Silva. Mancini may feel his hand is forced into playing more defensive. The fact the Gunners have struggled to break down deep, compact defenses this season may offer further incentive to play deeper.

If Wenger anticipates City defending deep it may be a smart move for him to go with Ramsey on the right (I can imagine Gunners fans exiting my post now, but hear me out). David Silva will be playing a narrow left-sided position for City. Defensively, he'll be responsible for tracking the forward runs of Bacary Sagna but he doesn't have the engine or tackling ability of James Milner on the other side of the pitch (who will track Gibbs). In all likelihood Sagna will get chances to get in behind Silva when Arsenal are in possession. Whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain would keep a wide position, Ramsey will tuck inside from the right to give Arsenal an extra body to compete in the middle, drawing Clichy in towards his center backs. This will create space for Sagna to make overlapping runs near the touchline and collect the ball in space on the wing. If Clichy doesn't follow Ramsey in field, Arsenal will be able to overload Barry and Garcia in front of the City back four with Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla.

Of course, the danger of getting Sagna in possession high up the pitch is that it leaves space for City to counter down the left when they retain possession. As Arsenal's outside backs join the attack, we could see Tevez floating in space behind them on either channel where he'll look to spring counters through direct balls out to the wings. Dezeko's winner at WBA show that his movement can be deadly on the counter. Arteta will therefore have to remain focused on Tevez's positioning.

Arsenal Approach
It'll be interesting to see how Wenger chooses to defend. Yaya Toure often provides the link from defense to offense for City with either forward passes or his powerful vertical runs with the ball. Neither Barry nor Garcia possess the same ability to make forward passes and they certainly can't match Toure's powerful dribbling. We may therefore see City struggle to advance the ball into the final third. Wenger may elect to drop his wingers alongside Wilshere and Arteta defensively to provide a midfield bank of four and limit space in between the seams for the likes of Tevez and Silva to move into and provide a passing option. With few easy forward passing options we could see City frustrated into playing horizontal balls in the midfield between Garcia, Barry and the center backs. It's difficult to imagine Wenger being quite this pragmatic at home however.

If the Gunners choose instead to press they may force City into knocking long balls in towards Dzeko from the back but they also run the risk of leaving Tevez space to get on the ball and run at the back four. In all likelihood Arsenal will do some combination of dropping in deep and pressing. 

Whereas City's lineup often includes five prominent attacking threats, absences mean they'll only have three Sunday- David Silva, Tevez and Dzeko. Mancini is always cautious in this fixture to begin with- without Toure and Aguero he has an even greater incentive to be pragmatic once again. I'd expect another cagey, low scoring affair. I hope I'm proven wrong.