The long-awaited return of the Premier League comes this week in the form of Manchester City welcoming Arsenal to the Etihad Stadium. Pep Guardiola's former assistant coach Mikel Arteta is in charge of the Gunners, and he will be looking to upset his former tutor after over three months away from football.
Wednesday's match is the first encounter between Guardiola and Arteta, after the latter joined Arsenal at the end of last year. Arsenal come into the fixture unbeaten in the league in 2020, while Pep's side were defeated by Manchester United at Old Trafford in their final pre-lockdown fixture.
Ahead of the match we caught up with Patrick Timmons for some insight into the game and into the rest of Arsenal's season.
Thanks for joining us ahead of Wednesday's match Patrick. Arsenal recently lost 3-2 at home against Brentford in a friendly. These games shouldn’t be read into too much, but will this have a notable effect on confidence going into the City fixture?
I agree it is important not to over-analyse these results. In our case, we were leading 1-0 until the 70th minute. We threw the game away with a second-string XI on the field, so some fans are being slightly over the top. However, I think it will have a detrimental impact on our confidence as a group. Prior to the break, we hadn’t lost a league game in 2020. There were certainly still issues to address, but we appeared to be making significant progress under Arteta. We won our first friendly 6-0, and the performance seemed to match the work that the squad had been putting in during lockdown.
However, Wednesday’s result against Brentford puts a spanner in the works. You could argue that warm-up games against lower league opposition have no positive outcome. If you win, it can over-inflate your confidence courtesy of beating a sub-par side. If you lose, it’s awful for the morale of the group. I would like to think that those involved in the game will quickly put it out of their minds, and focus entirely on our clash at the Etihad, but that is easier said than done. I guess we will find out on Wednesday.
Do you believe that having a long break from football to prepare for this fixture (among others) will help or harm Mikel Arteta’s chances of outwitting his former head coach?
Obviously, the immediate answer is that it will harm him. This isn’t down to tactics, but more so the strength of the current Manchester City squad. If I remember correctly, de Bruyne, Laporte and Sané all appeared to be doubts for our initial game - but they are all back now. When you couple this with the depth of your squad, and the newly introduced five substitutions, this immediately decreases our chances of success on the night.
Regarding tactics, it is fair to say that Arteta will have had more time to address the intricacies of Pep’s management. However, the opposite also applies. In the months to come, I think we will reap the rewards of the break, as Mikel is very strong tactically, but I can’t help but feel like a result at the Etihad seems very unlikely - regardless of the break between this fixture and our previous domestic result on March 7th.
Arsenal are unbeaten in the league in 2020 - despite the three-month break in play, is this still an important point of encouragement for the players and how does it reflect on Arteta’s time in charge so far?
Admittedly, I am slightly biased on this topic. Arteta is a player who I have loved for years, and he was my first choice to replace Emery, so I really want to see him succeed at the club. However, I think it is fair to say that we have seen significant progress. Although we have only risen two league positions since his arrival, I feel like we are on the right track.
As you mentioned, we are unbeaten domestically in 2020. In terms of the breakdown of results, we are much more assured at the back. We have managed seven clean sheets in 13 games since the turn of the year. Although that might not stand out as particularly impressive, for context, our previous seven clean sheets prior to his arrival span as far back as April 2019.
For me, what has been most impressive so far is his impact on individuals. Our January signings saw the arrival of Pablo Marí and Cédric Soares on loan. Neither of the players were fit at the time, so we have seen just 180 minutes of action between them. Essentially, Arteta has an identical squad to that of Unai Emery. The likes of Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz have transformed from weak links in the side to some of our key performers. Whether or not they are able to sustain this form remains to be seen.
Regardless, if Arteta is able to bring the best out of the so-called weaker players that he has inherited, it makes me optimistic to see what he can do with those that he wants by request in the future. It is very much a long-term project, and success certainly won’t be instant, but I am looking forward to seeing us transition into a new age under his guidance.
Despite being a phenomenal and instrumental creator for Arsenal for the majority of this decade, some fans have criticised the Mesut Özil for a low goal contribution rate this year. Do you believe the German will be an important fixture for Arsenal for the rest of the season?
For the rest of the season, I feel like Özil will be included in most - if not all - of our XIs. This isn’t necessarily down to his sublime displays this season, but more so due to a lack of competition.
The only real alternative for the number ten role is Joe Willock. Although the youngster had a very strong start to the season, he has since fallen by the wayside. Of course, this happens to many players at his age, so he certainly has the ability to bounce back. In fact, he scored in both of our friendlies leading into Wednesday’s game. For the future, he is very much an option.
However, for the remainder of the 2019/20 campaign, I feel like Özil will feature more heavily. The German has been superb for the majority of his time in England. Although his assist account doesn’t always reflect it, he was a joy to watch in his prime. If he was blessed with a top-class striker while at his peak, his time at Arsenal would be viewed very differently - both by Arsenal fans and fans of English football in general. Unfortunately, we let him down with recruitment during his prime. We have Aubameyang now, who very much ticks that box, but Mesut turns 32 in October. He understandably isn’t able to sustain the level of performance that we became accustomed to in 2016.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the club were looking to secure the signing of a long-term successor for the Özil in the upcoming transfer window.
Fixtures against Man City, Sheffield United, Wolves, Leicester City, Tottenham and Liverpool are all still to come this season - how realistic is the idea of achieving a Europa League or even a top-four spot?
Unfortunately, I feel like a top-four finish this season may be slightly out of reach. If I am proven to be correct, it is a shame. We were 11th when Arteta took over, so a spot amongst Europe’s elite next season would really help to back up the progress that we, as fans, feel like we have made.
However, the fixture list is not in our favour at all. Although the Sheffield United game is in the FA Cup, it is still a tough draw which will require a strong squad. Out of our remaining ten league games, six of them are away from home. Our struggles on the road have been well documented over recent years, so this decreases our chance of Champions League qualification even further. Admittedly, the lack of home fans could transform our fortunes in that regard, but that is very much a hypothetical.
Realistically, I think that most of our fans are in agreement that Wednesday’s game is a write-off. We’re not expecting a win. However, we have to pick up maximum points in our following three games - against Brighton, Southampton and Norwich. If we could manage nine points out of twelve, we are still in with a shout.
This will bring us up to July, when the outcome of your ongoing investigation with UEFA will be released, so we may find out that fifth would be good enough to secure Champions League football for the 2020/21 campaign. Essentially, we have to take it one week at a time. Keep doing our job, and hope that some of our rivals drop points along the way. The current gap is only five points, and we have a game at hand, so it isn’t impossible - yet. It will certainly be interesting to keep an eye on in the months ahead.
Finally, what is your score prediction and predicted line-up for the game?
As I have said above, I can’t see us getting a positive result. Despite our progress in 2020 so far, Manchester City away from home is probably the worst possible fixture to return to action with. Even a game at Anfield doesn’t seem as daunting.
The thought of seeing the likes of Jesus, Mahrez and Sané being introduced after 75 minutes is a grim thought for any wilting team. Frankly, I just hope that we give a good account of ourselves and that the scoreline isn’t too embarrassing. A huge defeat would be awful for confidence, which could prove to be very costly in the winnable run of fixtures that follow.
My gut says: Manchester City 2-0 Arsenal.
In terms of the lineup, I feel like it will be: Leno; Bellerín, Luiz, Marí, Tierney; Xhaka, Ceballos, Özil; Pépé, Aubameyang, Lacazette.
Enjoy the game!
Thank you to Patrick for joining us ahead of Wednesday's game! Be sure to check him out on Twitter here: @PatrickTimmons1
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