Pep Guardiola’s centurions — the reigning Premier League champions — have been handed a tough start to the 2018/19 season with a trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal.
For Gunners fans, many will witness something new on Sunday — a game not managed by Arsene Wenger — as the club begin a new era under the tutelage of Unai Emery. For Manchester City fans, the question is whether their team can record back-to-back title triumphs for the first time and match last season’s heights.
The Citizens suggested little signs of a hangover from the players’ World Cup duties with a comfortable 2-0 win over Chelsea in last week’s Community Shield. Arsenal, too, had positive pre-season results, though they will count for nothing once the season begins.
The manager may have changed, but Emery, as an obsessive student of the game, will know that last season City defeated Arsenal three times, including in a cup final, scoring three goals on each occasion.
With that in mind, let’s look at some key battles that could decide how Sunday’s match goes.
1 Shkodran Mustafi vs Sergio Aguero
For the home side, Laurent Koscielny and Sead Kolasinac are injured whilst Calum Chambers — who started in Arsenal’s final pre-season game vs Lazio — has joined Fulham on loan, despite recently signing a new contract.
So whilst predicting teams for opening day fixtures is always a lottery, it seems Arsenal will line up with centre backs Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi.
And whilst we cannot know what to expect on his debut from Sokratis, it is the inclusion of Mustafi that may give home fans greater cause for concern.
Many commentators have overplayed Arsenal’s defensive deficiencies through the years, but last season they conceded 51 goals in the league, and the defence often lacked shape and discipline, while individual errors played a key role in their struggles.
Mustafi had a difficult season, as illustrated when he allowed Sergio Aguero to get goal-side of him to score the opening goal in the Carabao Cup final.
Aguero himself is fit and raring to go after knee surgery in the summer and scored a brace in last week’s Community Shield. If Arsenal are to get anything out of this game, Mustafi will have to keep Aguero under wraps.
2 Lucas Torreira vs Bernardo Silva
Bernardo Silva has been in sparkling form in pre-season, having ended last year just as impressively. He gained an assist as City beat Bayern Munich and another as City cruised past Chelsea in the Community Shield.
It’s not just about statistics though. His close control and ability to thread a pass will pose a significant threat to Arsenal’s backline, and the ball seems glued to his feet.
Alongside Phil Foden, Chelsea’s midfield last week had no answer to their control of the ball. He seems certain to start against Arsenal, and probably centrally unless the return of Kevin De Bruyne forces him into a wider position.
However, in Lucas Torreira, Arsenal may have the perfect antidote. In a hectic summer of World Cup football, the £26 million signing of Torreira went somewhat under the radar, deep-lying midfielders not providing much glamour.
However, if Torreira fulfils his potential, he could be just what Arsenal require, a top-class defensive midfielder not seen since Gilberto Silva departed a decade ago.
At 22 years old, he is a rising star that can sit deep in midfield and repel danger. He may be small at five foot six, but that should not be a problem against Manchester City.
He showed his talent in Russia, and his disciplined and physical play can allow Arsenal’s attacking players to flourish. Stifling the likes of Bernardo and De Bruyne could prove crucial to the match’s outcome.
3 Unai Emery vs Pep Guardiola
Both managers approach on Sunday will be crucial in the outcome of this match. For Emery, an opening game against the Premier League champions is a daunting task. Emery, even if successful in the long-term, will probably take time to assert himself at a club used to only one man for 22 years.
He faces a Guardiola who is now fully into the swing of things at Manchester City and had an unparalleled domestic campaign last year where City racked up 100 points.
The Gunners appointed Emery early in the summer so he had ample time to prepare, but he was not the Arsenal board’s first choice and their primary target, Mikel Arteta, will take his seat on the visitors’ bench on Sunday.
Guardiola took time to settle too, but he answered his critics last season and his team’s performance in the Community Shield suggested that they are raring to go once more.
Crucial to this game’s outcome is how Emery approaches his first game. Will he proceed with caution, aware of City’s devastating attacking capabilities, or with a fresh, attacking approach that seeks to take on City at their own game?
With the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at his disposal, his side should always pose a significant threat to opposing defences. Emery has commented recently that he wants his team to play like City, and he will demand intensity and pressing that was often lacking from his predecessor’s teams.
The two managers differ in many ways, but both share a key trait in that they are football obsessives. Those that know him say Emery watches 12 hours of video for each game, and you can expect the Arsenal players to watch a good few hours too preparing for this match. They may need to.
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