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On Thursday evening, Arsenal were still hoping that Bukayo Saka could feature on Sunday, but Mikel Arteta has naturally had to start drawing up alternative plans. Part of him, however, feels that could serve his side well in this pivotal clash that could define the title race.
It is probably better to have Pep Guardiola second-guessing you, since a figure like the Manchester City manager can take that to third-, fourth- or even beyond fifth-guessing. The Catalan will be rolling everything around in his mind on Friday evening, having pored over the recent footage.
Most of the footage of recent Arsenal-City games, mind, have been all too clear. They’ve all gone one way, to an almost farcical degree.
City have beaten Arsenal for 12 successive Premier League games. It would be bad enough if it was over a bottom-half side, but is virtually unprecedented among financial heavyweights or the old “big six”.
Arsenal have admittedly had many iterations throughout what was a transformative and often difficult period in their history, and that is illustrated by the fact you have to go back to a Shkodran Mustafi header in April 2017 for the last time they even claimed a point off City. You have to go back to December 2015, and goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, for Arsenal’s last victory in the fixture.
That is what Arteta is trying to overcome, as he makes constant appeals to only consider the future. It is not just about revenge for last season, a quick recovery after a shock defeat to RC Lens or even or reasserting Arsenal’s title credentials after a rare City defeat.
It will be about overcoming the knowledge that the champions almost always beat them. That can be a huge psychological factor for a team, because of how it can create a fatalism, even subconsciously.
Arteta can at least point to one big victory in the FA Cup as well as this summer’s shoot-out win in the Community Shield, but the fact the Premier League represents their great ambition means there’s a different feel to it. It’s something they need to address, especially if they are to actually beat City in the league. That seems like one of those psychological hurdles that needs to be overcome, in the same way City themselves had it with Manchester United after the Abu Dhabi takeover.
The Community Shield may still influence this, mind, because of how Guardiola himself did something so different in that game. He decided to properly bait the press, in the same way that Roberto De Zerbi has made his great innovation. Arsenal didn’t bite, and came through the game, but it has almost set a kind of tactical arms race in motion; where last season’s top two keep trading significant events that could affect the course of this year.
Arsenal beat City to Declan Rice, City attempted to undercut Arsenal’s entire approach by baiting the press. Arsenal didn’t respond but are trying to add more tactical variety to last season, meaning they don’t start the campaign as well as the champions. City then lost Rodri to a red card and unexpectedly lost a game, allowing Arsenal back in.
That could now be offset with the absence of Saka, as both managers attempt to figure out what next.
It does mean there has been a high degree of variation, to a fixture that has continuously gone one way for six years.
That is a long run for Arsenal to overcome, a lot of mental conditioning about how this match is supposed to go.
It could be said they’re “due”, but that could have been said years ago. Much might depend on the moment.
Will Guardiola attempt to bait Arsenal again, or was that bait in itself? Does Arteta prepare for that, or prepare for something different altogether?
Both of these managers could send each other down all manner of avenues with second guesses, all the more so because they know each other so well.
That doesn’t, for once, mean we know how this ends. That in itself may depend on who starts.