27 March 2014

A recipe for turning the Man City tide...

Look, I get it. The last thing we need right now is a visit from putative league-leaders Man City. Yes, Chelsea is top of the table, but Man City have two games in hand and could theoretically climb three points above them once they've played the same number of matches. So be it. We, of course, have problems of our own. The shocker at Stamford Bridge. The stumble against Swansea. Would that we could play someone truly woeful, like Fulham, in order to have a chance to run rough-shod over someone else for a chance. It's easy to feel sorry for oneself at times like this, so sorry, I'd wager, that a fair few of you mutter to yourselves, "and we'd probably find a way to fail against Fulham anyway." I understand. After all, I felt the same way, and I'm the guy doing the typing. Stick with me here and I promise I won't unveil a little reverse psychology ahead of Saturday's clash.

In the backs of our minds, if not the fronts, is the fact that Man City gave us our first thrashing of the season back in December. With memories of that match still lingering, and with the fresher, unpleasant horror-show from Saturday, it's natural to worry that we're going to see a reprise of the sorts that will put us on the wrong end of another orgy of goals. Chelsea, after all, do not score like Man City or Liverpool do, and yet they did what they did. Now, here come Man City, scorers of 10 goals in their last three matches and a +13 goal differential on the road. Recipe for disaster, right?

Well, all this talk of Man City going nuts on us on Saturday got me thinking. What if all of those expectations and predictions of another mauling could work, in some small way, to our advantage? The longer we hold out, the more-difficult and drawn out the match becomes, the more those expectations could start to weigh on Man City's minds. After all, in the losses to Liverpool and Chelsea, the carnage came in the first 15 minutes or so. Should we escape the first 15-20 minutes against City unscathed, the questions will start to bubble up: why haven't they scored? This is Arsenal they're playing, fragile, fragile Arsenal. If City can't take all three points, their quest for the Prem title is all but dashed...

The longer we hold them off, the more impatient and irritable they'll get. Get under their skins a little, and they may come unglued. God forbid we find a goal of our own to take a lead. Speaking ahead of the match, Mathieu Flamini explained in more detail:
[w]hen you play a big game, you cannot lose it in the first 10 or 15 minutes…so we have to be focused and be ready because these kinds of games are battles. You have to win the duels, win the fight and then play your football. After that, we have enough quality in this team to find a goal.
Throwing up a stubborn, stalwart defensive display, even to the point of sitting back to defend for the first 15 minutes or so, might very well unsettle City. Defending deep and in numbers might not be our style, but it may be necessary at least as an opening gambit. Without Agüero up top, we'll likely see Edin Dzeko instead, offering height and strength over Agüero's dribble, passing, pace, and trickery. I trust Mertesacker and Vermaelen against Dzeko a little more than against Agüero, for what that's worth. The more we frustrate their attack, the more we can look to control the match.  At the other end, City will be without Nastasic, meaning that Demichelis will likely deputize. He's shown signs of vulnerability, enough to offer hope that we could look to exploit him. It's in the middle of the pitch that Man City's edge looks most formidable. Touré could very well have a field day if we give him the kind of space and time we offered at the Etihad, and closing him down early and denying him the ball will go a long way to blunting their attack.

This kind of cautious, defensive start might be enough to turn the tide in our favor. Everyone expects Man City to obliterate us. They did it once (kind of—application of the offsides rule seems different somehow at the Etihad), so why not do it again? That's the kind of thinking that we might just be able to turn around and wield as a weapon against them. It might not be enough to lead us to victory, but a draw would not only secure a valuable point, it would remind us all of the quality and spirit that the squad has shown for almost the entire season up until these last few weeks.