Manchester City rebounded from their opening 1-0 defeat to Tottenham with a comprehensive 5-0 thrashing of Norwich City the following week, moving them up to 9th in the Premier League table. The Citizens’ next opponents are Arsenal, who have lost both of their two games to Brentford and Chelsea respectively. Nonetheless, Mikel Arteta’s side will still present a challenge for City, so who is most likely to feature in their starting line-up?
STARTING LINE-UP VERSUS NORWICH
Pep continued to deploy a 4-3-3 against Norwich, making five changes to the XI that lost to Tottenham. Nathan Aké, Benjamin Mendy, Fernandinho, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling made way for Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus respectively.
Though the amount of changes was expected, some of the personnel choices were not. John Stones was a heavy favourite to partner Ruben Dias at centre-back, but his lack of fitness paved the way for Laporte’s inclusion instead, while Bernardo Silva was also a surprise name on the team-sheet after being heavily linked with a move away. It shows the difficulty of predicting line-ups as there is certain information that is not released to the public.
POTENTIAL LINE-UP VERSUS ARSENAL
So what can we expect from City against Arsenal? Well, it is unlikely that Pep will make as many changes as he did last weekend after now integrating the remaining late-returners – bar John Stones. One or two changes have the strongest possibility and these are more likely to come in midfield and attack rather than defence.
Following Belgian head coach Roberto Martinez’s comments and City’s statement yesterday, we know that Kevin De Bruyne (ankle injury) and Benjamin Mendy (suspended by club following police charges) will join Phil Foden (foot injury) as unavailable for the match. This helps us narrow down on the players who are still in contention to start.
Below is a table of City’s first-team squad that includes their minutes for the opening two gameweeks, as well as highlighting who is sidelined against Arsenal.
Pep opted for a back four of Walker-Dias-Laporte-Cancelo against Norwich and I would be very surprised if we saw changes to it on Saturday. Dias-Laporte is a superior defensive partnership to Dias-Aké and also offers the added bonus of being more progressive in possession. Though you could make a case for Stone’s inclusion over Laporte, the fact he was unable to be fit in time for the Norwich game now makes it very unlikely that Pep would throw him in against Arsenal (injuries permitting).
Cancelo also looks a safe bet to hold onto the left-back spot after the club suspended Mendy pending the outcome of his police charges. Oleksandr Zinchenko is the only player who could oust the Portuguese full-back, but again his lack of match time – yet to start a game in pre-season or the first two gameweeks – makes his inclusion in the XI unlikely. So if the changes are not coming from defence, where could they come from in midfield and attack?
De Bruyne’s absence this weekend decreases the probability of Pep making a change in midfield. The City manager played Bernardo-Rodri-Gundogan in a three against Norwich, which worked effectively in what was a dominant possession and attacking display from the current league champions.
The only two players who could come into the midfield would be Fernandinho (rested) and Jack Grealish (played left-wing). Both featured there in the 1-0 loss to Tottenham, but City lacked control in that game which could be attributed to the lack of balance in midfield (among other reasons).
For me, this makes it unlikely that Pep will change his midfield against Arsenal, though there is an outside chance of Fernandinho and Rodri playing in a double pivot ahead of a Gundogan/Bernardo to nullify the opposition’s counter-attacking threat. Such tactic was used effectively in City’s 4-1 win over Arsenal in the League Cup last season.
If the defence and midfield are unlikely to see any changes, this leaves the attackers more vulnerable. It is the position that typically sees the most rotation and I would be surprised if the front three against Norwich of Jesus-Torres-Grealish all keep their places on Saturday.
Pep was particularly complimentary of Jesus’s performance and post-game analysis seems to suggest that the young Brazilian forward is more effective on the right-wing, which should bode well for keeping his place this weekend.
That leaves Grealish and Torres under the most threat having started two games each. However, City are short of options up front, which is why they are in the market for a striker. This makes Torres’s position more secure than Grealish, who I believe is the most likely player to drop down to the bench against Arsenal.
Raheem Sterling seems like the obvious bet to replace him with the home game presenting an ideal opportunity to bid farewell to the fans if reports of him leaving are to be believed. Sterling also has more experience of City’s system and a higher work-rate, which are useful traits in big games of fine margins.
PREDICTED CITY LINE-UP VERSUS ARSENAL
Therefore, I predict one change for City – Sterling replacing Grealish on the left-wing – to form the following starting XI:
Ederson; Walker; Dias; Laporte; Cancelo; Rodri; Gundogan; Bernardo; Sterling; Torres; Jesus.