Only once in the league this season has the Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini deviated from his 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 template. That was at Chelsea, when he brought in Javi Garcia to supplement Fernandinho and Yaya Toure in front of the back four and switched to a 4-3-3, but the thought of a similar switch to combat the fluidity of Arsenal’s midfield (live, Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET) must have at least crossed his mind.
There may have been the odd game in which Yaya Toure has played slightly further in advance of Fernandinho than others, but other than at Stamford Bridge, City have always played a back four with Toure and Fernandinho, both players who naturally like to advance, in front of them. That has worked well at home, where City have won seven games out of seven, scoring a remarkable 29 goals and conceding only two — but less well away, where City have been surprisingly vulnerable.
The reasons for that have been much debated, but probably come down to three factors. Firstly, the pitch at the Etihad is the largest in the Premier League and — as the Finnish journalist Eero Laurila has shown — it has more fibres per square meter than any other, meaning the pitch quality is, theoretically at least, better than anywhere else. Less smooth, smaller pitches, perhaps, are less conducive to their style of football. Secondly, home teams tend to take the initiative and that exposes the defensive vulnerability of Fernandinho-Toure partnership. There is some evidence that they are improving as a pairing, as is to be expected midway through their first season together, but both are players who last season had a more obviously destructive midfielder alongside them. And thirdly, a couple of poor results away from home early on in the season — caused by the defensive howlers at Cardiff and Aston Villa, for instance — have created a neurosis: trends in sport are often self-perpetuating for that reason.
The psychological issue — obviously — doesn’t apply on Saturday with City at home, but the other two may have a bearing. Arsenal showed against Everton on Sunday, as they had shown against Southampton two weeks earlier, that they have no problems allowing the opposition the ball and defending, but the natural ball-playing skills of their midfield means there will be periods in the game when they do control possession. When that happens – and when Arsenal counter-attack — the defensive capacity of Fernandinho and Toure will be severely tested.
One of the problems Arsenal creates for opponents is how narrow their attacking midfield trio plays. Some sides create space by stationing one — or two — men wide, stretching the play; Arsenal rely instead on inter-movement. Santi Cazorla usually starts on the left, but he will regularly pop up in an inside-right position. Mesut Ozil will begin centrally but there will be times in the game when he emerges on the flank, or drops deep into his own half. That means, against two holders, they can outnumber the opposition — the risk of overcrowding mitigated by their close technical ability — with the fullbacks who would usually pick up the wider creators reluctant to come that far infield.
The danger of that, as the Everton leftback Bryan Oviedo proved last Sunday, is that if Arsenal doesn’t have the ball, they are vulnerable to raids down the flanks from the fullbacks — and that is something Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov are more than capable of exploiting. Similarly, given Ozil isn’t a natural tracker, Toure could find himself essentially untended for surges from deep. Or, if the line of three does drop deep, as happened in the second half in Napoli, their lack of pace means Giroud can become isolated; if Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, expects his side to spend long periods without the ball, there may be reason to recall Theo Walcott against City.
Or it may be that Wenger adopts a slightly more cautious approach and fields Mathieu Flamini from the start. That would probably mean Flamini lining up alongside Arteta — who has been superb this season at controlling the tempo of games — in front of the back four, with Aaron Ramsey moving to the right and Jack Wilshere dropping to the bench. That has the added advantage that Ramsey is probably a more natural fit for trying to prevent Kolarov getting forward as well.
The other major issue — and it is one that has increased the pressure on the Toure-Fernandinho pairing — is that City’s 4-2-3-1 is much closer to being a 4-4-2 than that of most teams, with Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo almost an orthodox strike pairing. Negredo does drop a little deeper than the Argentinian, but he is still demonstrably a forward rather than a central midfielder. That could be a problem if Arsenal begin to dominate possession; with effectively a midfielder fewer and with David Silva (or Samir Nasri if he is selected instead on the left) not noted for his defensive work, it’s hard to see how City could begin to recover the ball.
As it is, though, that’s more likely to be a feature of the game at the Emirates later in the season. At home, City has swept all before it; before Arsenal can even begin to think of dominating possession it must stop the tide.