Man City-Arsenal: Five key matchups

Projected selections, formations for Arsenal’s Sunday match at Premier League-leading Manchester City.

We think of Manchester City’s ascendancy as a new phenomenon, though from Arsenal’s point of view, the Citizens’ class as been evident for some time. The Gunners have won only two of their last eight meetings with City, with the Citizens keep six clean sheets.

This season Manchester City is giving a goal a game, hardly a generous rate, but with injury and suspension bringing a third choice in at one spot in defense, Arsenal may see an avenue to goal that the rest of the league has yet to find.

Among the factors that will determine whether Arsenal can take advantage: the player-versus-player matchups. Here are our five.

1. Robin van Persie vs. Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott

Kompany and Lescott are as talented a central defending pair as you’ll find in England, which is not to say they’re either the best pairing or a lock to slow down van Persie, whose 15 goals are four more than any other player in the league. Arsenal’s captain has the foot speed to beat either, a scary proposition given Gervinho’s underrated playmaking ability and Theo Walcott’s advantage on the right of attack (more on that, below).

City’s duo is going to have to make their numerical advantage holdup. Kompany and Lescott need to be on the same page throughout the match to make sure they’re handing van Persie off to each other as the Dutchman moves within the box. They’ll also need to get strong performances from Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré, City’s defensive midfielders. If either Kompany or Lescott are forced to deal with Arsenal midfielders Aaron Ramsey or Mikel Arteta, their partner will be left on an island against the league’s most dangerous man.

2. Theo Walcott vs. Pablo Zabaleta

Manchester City’s top two choices at left back are out for Sunday’s match, so they’ll just have to settle for an Argentine international. Talk about the riches of the one percent! You could do a lot worse than have Pablo Zabaleta to call on when Gael Clichy’s suspended and Aleksandr Kolarov’s injured.

Zabaleta’s going to have his hands full with Walcott, one of the league’s fastest players, a man who has already racked up five assists on the season. If Walcott can beat Zabaleta and force Joleon Lescott to help from his left-center half’s position, van Persie will need only beat Kompany in the space opened up in the right side of the penalty area. If deep-sitting midfielder Gareth Barry has to help, then partner Yaya Touré will more left in isolation to protect Lescott and Kompany against Ramsey and Arteta.

If Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini sees Walcott beating Zabaleta wide as a likely scenario, he may start James Milner on the left (as opposed to the right) side of midfield again, as he did at the beginning of Monday’s match at Stamford Bridge. If Milner isn’t there to help, Zabaletta will have to handle it himself and keep Walcott from creating opportunities for van Persie in the middle.

3. Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey vs. Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure

This looks like a big mismatch. On paper, it doesn’t seem like Arteta and Ramsey are the pair to break down City’s midfield duo. With Toure apt to come out of an anchor’s role, provide pressure through the middle of the park, and ride Arteta off the ball, you can envision Arsenal’s duo being manhandled by City’s. How does Arsenal break through City’s shield, given they’re not going to get much width transitioning into attack (because of their own injury problems at the back, below)?

Walcott provides an avenue to go around City’s anchors, but Gervinho could also prove key. The Ivorian is nominally a wide player, but he has the skill-set to be influential when playing more narrow. If he can provide an option for Arteta or, in a perfect world, be the person to connect the midfield with van Persie, Arsenal will have a detour around City’s roadblock.

4. David Silva vs. Alexander Song

If Arsenal can pull Barry and Toure from their preferred positions, defensive midfielder Alexander Song could prove dangerous jumping into attack; however, Song leaving space behind him would be a double-edged sword for Arsenal, probably one they want to avoid. Where David Silva coming in from wide will be crucial to City’s ability to link to their attack, Song is the key to Arsenal’s ability to break that up. Arguably the league’s best defensive midfielder this season, Song will have to be on constant lookout for Silva, arguably the league’s best playmaker.

If Song can disrupt how City’s used Silva, it will force Sergio Aguero to come deeper and Yaya Toure to be more influential in a higher area of the field. City’s capable of pulling off any of those adjustments; however, they’re much more potent when Silva’s involved.

5. Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero vs. Arsenal’s four center halves

Injuries at left and right back mean Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen, natural central defenders, will be playing right and left back, respectively. At the back, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (until Adam Johnson comes on), though as alluded above, it does limit some of the things Arsene Wenger can do going forward. Sure, in theory Djourou and Vermaelen have the ability to get into attack, but against Manchester City, do you really want to test theories? Better to ask your defenders to do what they know: defend.

For City, it’s business as usual, though the movement of Aguero and Silva off Balotelli (and off each other) could prove particularly valuable when trying to attack the channels to the right of Vermaelen and to the left of Djourou – channels those players are used to defending from the other side. In particular, if City can get Silva, Milner, or even Toure attacking in line with the far post when play is coming through the opposite side, they could catch a central defender sleeping on a weak side responsibility they’re not used to inheriting.