(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)
Wenger is out, but can Emery fit in?
For the first time in 23 seasons, Arsenal will have a new manager on the touchline as Unai Emery could not have picked a more difficult opponent to make a Premier League debut against than Pep Guardiola and Manchester City as the reigning champions come to the Emirates on Sunday.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The divide that roiled a fan base finally reached an anticlimactic conclusion last season as the Frenchman bid au revoir to the north London side. While Wenger won a record seven FA Cups with the Gunners (19-6-13 in 2017-18), the gradual slide that had seen them fall out of Champions League play for a second straight year and lack serious title challenges for most of the decade finally wore out supporters and the Arsenal board.
“Le Professeur” enjoyed a gracious long good-bye after a sixth-place finish – his worst in his lengthy tenure at Arsenal – and a semifinal exit in the Europa League.
Given the lack of big names in the coaching market – Tito Villanova reportedly priced himself out of a potential hiring while ex-Arsenal players-turned coaches Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira were considered too green – Emery seems a vanilla hire who does not address the lofty ambitions of a club who last won a title with “The Invincibles” in 2004.
Emery won three consecutive Europa League titles at Sevilla from 2014-16, but his two seasons at Paris-Saint Germain were nothing spectacular. He won the treble last season as Ligue 1 winner, but PSG were eliminated in the round of 16 in both of his Champions League campaigns – a place that does not sit well with the Arsenal fan base considering Wenger made his exit in that round in his last seven appearances.
“We need to work together and the first way to do that is by finding the performance,” Emery told supporters in his first meeting with them per The Times. “I want a team with energy and I want players to give their all on the pitch.
“I want to give them the habits that I want to see from them in each match. I want to see them demonstrate these habits in every game and give their all. … It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just a different moment for this club.”
Emery does not lack for talent and has one of the best attacks in the Premier League in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexander Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey. It will be Aubameyang’s first full season at the Emirates after coming over from Borussia Dortmund in the January window and making a huge impact with 10 goals in 13 league matches. Ramsey, though, could give way to teenager Matteo Guendozui due to a knock.
Ozil, who spent last season and summer as a lightning rod of all criticisms leveled at the club and country level following Germany’s flameout in group play at the World Cup this summer, retired from international play after a falling out with the DFB amid cries of racism regarding his Turkish heritage and is intent on taking out a lost summer on Premier League opponents.
The defence – a sore spot all of last season as Wenger vacillated between three and four-man backlines – appears set to be four under Emery, who likely will use a 4-3-3 for this match after experimenting with a 4-4-2 in preseason. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulous will pair in central defence, though Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be the weak link in this match at left back since Nacho Monreal is out through injury.
Newcomer and Uruguay international Lucas Torreira will anchor the midfield with Ramsey while Ozil is likely to push forward in attack with the front three. There is also likely to be a new goalkeeper as summer signing Bernd Leno has seen extensive action in the preseason over incumbent Petr Cech.
While Arsenal have had a summer of upheaval, Manchester City (32-4-2) have quietly gone about their business preparing their bid to be the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won three straight Premier League titles from 2007-09.
The Citizens are better than even-money favourites to repeat after coasting to the title by 19 points over eternal rivals United. They demolished almost every single-season record in the 26-year history of the Premier League – most notably being the first 100-point top-flight team in English football history – but the anger of a Champions League quarterfinal elimination by Liverpool is all the motivation Guardiola needs.
“The best way is to think ‘What’s next,'” Guardiola told City’s official website. “Focus on what we have done in our job, the desire to improve. We are still hungry and we hold them to be better and better players. It’s not easy (to repeat) but we’re going to try. It’s unrealistic to think about it early, the best way to do it is game-by-game.”
City had 16 players at the World Cup, the most of any Premier League team, and they are at various stages of match-fit. One of those players, Sergio Aguero, is in form after bagging a brace in their 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield last Sunday at Wembley.
One player who did not go to Russia and could factor large in this match is Riyad Mahrez. He was the lone summer signing for City, who finally pried the Algeria international from Leicester City for £60 million after a January deal fell through. He further adds to a staggering wealth of talent in attack that includes Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus.
“He’s ready,” Guardiola said after observing Mahrez throughout City’s preseason tour. “I think he understands what we’re looking for, he played completely differently at Leicester. We have to give it time.”
Guardiola could use a 4-1-4-1 formation for this game as left back Benjamin Mendy returns after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury. John Stones, who was one of England’s best players at the World Cup, is expected to pair with Aymeric Laporte in central defence in front of Ederson.
Aguero would be the lone striker up front, with De Bruyne and Silva the central midfielders while Sane and Mahrez man the flanks. Fernandinho would clean up in front of the back four as the defensive midfielder.
City won all three matches between the teams, with a 3-0 hiding in the Carabao Cup final in late February bookending their league victories. The twin 3-0 thrashings four days apart galvanised Arsenal’s board in moving Wenger to the exit, as the second defeat was in front of wide patches of empty seats at the Emirates.
Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are solid 17/20 favorites to win while Arsenal and a draw return 14/5 odds. City get a better return on investment with 21/10 odds on a win with both teams scoring a goal, and for the real daring, there are 3/1 odds for a Citizens win coupled with the over of 3.5 goals.
Aguero leads the way for first-choice goal-scorers at 10/3 odds, followed by Jesus (4/1) and Aubameyang (5/1). Sane, Sterling and Mahrez all lurk just behind the Arsenal striker at 11/2. Aguero’s brace in the Community Shield also make him an even-money bet to score during the match.
It has been mainly optimistic in north London in terms of Arsenal’s preseason results. The Gunners ruthlessly walloped Emery’s old team PSG around draws against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, splitting results via penalties.
But now comes the real test, one that Emery probably would not have minded being pushed back until after the first international break to better get a sense of his team. Even an A/B mix of City players severely outclassed Chelsea in the Community Shield, and as this team likely will range closer to “A” than “B,” it could be another long night for the Gunners at the Emirates.
What will be curious to see about City is to examine “how” they will be better than last season. It may not take the form of losing only two matches in league play as they likely will finish with fewer than 100 points. Guardiola has talked little about Champions League and the motivation of crashing out to Liverpool in the quarterfinals compared to chasing history, and that choice to look forward will serve this team well.
In the end, there is likely just too much class for Arsenal to overcome this soon in the season, though they should give City some moments of bother in the final third.
PREDICTION: MANCHESTER CITY 3, ARSENAL 1