WE ARE into the back end of January and finally, the game everyone has been waiting for is about to take place.
The two best clubs in English football right now are set to go toe-to-toe a high-flying Arsenal take on Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
However, supporters will be forced to wait another two weeks before the European giants meet in the Premier League which could be a colossal game in the title race with long-lasting repercussions.
In the mean-time, fans will still be treated to a nice prequel this Friday in the FA Cup ahead of the first league outing in mid-February.
The Gunners are the competition’s record winners, having been victorious on 14 occasions.
The last time Arsenal lifted the crown was back in 2020, which became Mikel Arteta’s first and only ever trophy with the club he once captained. For now, at least.
Pep Guardiola has only won the FA Cup once too but has never been eliminated at the fourth round since taking the job in Manchester back in 2016.
One of these titans will bow out of the competition this weekend.
But this gives the apprentice Arteta the ideal opportunity to turn the tables on his former master Guardiola
Here are three tactical areas where this star-studded FA Cup tie can be won and lost between Man City and their title rivals Arsenal.
Will Guardiola bend?
“I like to have a lot of players in the middle, it is like the kitchen in the apartment. We just want to create,” was Pep Guardiola’s response when a reporter asked him why he inverted both of his fullbacks after City beat West Ham earlier this season.
There are a vast number of benefits to having fullbacks tuck inside and play in the middle of the park, providing they are comfortable on the ball and under pressure.
Firstly, Pep wants full control in the midfield and having extra bodies inside the central channels allows this to happen.
The fullbacks tuck inside and play short passes with the other midfielders and the centre-backs which helps them to dominate in the middle.
However, inverting fullbacks is also a way to control counter-attacks through the middle of the pitch.
Having more defensive-minded players in the midfield allows the team to defend and contain transitions better in this area.
While the idea initially sounds unorthodox, this makes complete sense.
Nevertheless, results as of recently haven’t entirely gone to plan for Guardiola.
The Premier League champions were held to a 1-1 draw by a woeful Everton, knocked out of the Carabao Cup by an even worse Southampton before losing the Manchester Derby just days later.
This is the most inconsistent City have looked since Liverpool won the title during the 2019/20 campaign and is one of the reasons why many believe Arsenal will take the crown.
As a result of City’s feeble nature at the moment, Guardiola has been a little more adaptable with his tactical approach, especially in big games.
Against Man Utd at Old Trafford two weeks ago, we saw the former Barcelona boss shy away from inverting his fullbacks, telling them to keep a wider position on the pitch instead.
This was likely because of the counterattacking ability in United’s forward line, particularly with Marcus Rashford.
Pep knew that Erik ten Hag would look to exploit City down the flanks with Rashford’s speed if the right-back tucked inside and so instructed his wide defenders to stay holding the width.
Given Arsenal possess a similar counterattacking prowess with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, it will be interesting to see if Guardiola bends to the will of the opposition once more or makes Arsenal bend to theirs.
Borrowing from Ten Hag’s playbook
Man United limited Man City, the top goalscorers in the Premier League, to just one chance.
Of course, the one opportunity City did get was converted but the Red Devils did extremely well to limit City’s effectiveness in front of goal.
It wasn’t lucky either.
Ten Hag set United up expertly to nullify City and Arteta will certainly have been paying close attention to the Dutchman’s gameplan ahead of this gargantuan FA Cup clash.
As City kept their fullbacks holding the width during the attacking phases, ten Hag told his wingers to block the passing lanes to these wide defenders.
The ex-Ajax head coach wanted to force City to play into the central areas where United had man-marked their rivals’ midfield three using their own midfield trio of Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Fred.
This is an astute way to play against City.
While the midfielders are excellent on the ball and under pressure, this method of defending in a block still entices the Premier League champions to play risky passes into the feet of players who are being marked which can lead to a turnover of possession.
Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time a team have played against Manchester City in such a manner.
In fact, Arsenal have even done so in the past.
Back at the start of 2022, which was the last time the two sides met in any competition, Arteta demanded his side press high up the pitch when City were trying to play out from the back.
While pressing, the forward line would apply pressure to the centre-backs and goalkeeper while trying to cut off the wider passing lanes.
In correlation to this, Martin Odegaard sat on Rodri who is always City’s first line-breaking passing option.
The Gunners wanted to entice City to make this pass so Odegaard could jump the Spaniard from behind and win the ball high up the pitch.
Arsenal are one of the highest pressing teams in the Premier League and this will certainly transfer over on Friday night in the FA Cup.
City may find it really difficult to play out of the visitors’ pressure in their own third, especially if Arsenal are able to close down all viable passing lanes to escape the press.
Arsenal’s counterpressing struggles
In attack on Sunday afternoon, Arsenal were scintillating and were even more impressive out of possession, putting Man Utd under serious pressure during the 3-2 victory at the Emirates Stadium.
The scoreline may have flattered to deceive the Red Devils a little but ten Hag’s men still made a very good account of themselves and had the league-leaders on the ropes on more than one occasion throughout the match.
Mikel Arteta’s potential champions have not really had many tactical problems this season.
However, an issue reared its ugly head against United at the weekend.
Arsenal really struggled to cope with Man United’s counterpressing when the ball was in the former’s half.
The hosts would often regain possession from United but instantly lose it close to their own goal after United hunted it down in numbers.
Many have credited Marcus Rashford for scoring a wonderful goal from outside the area after sending Thomas Partey to the cleaners.
However, what hasn’t been discussed as much is just how intense and aggressive the Reds were to win the ball back in the build-up to the goal.
United don’t take the lead unless Bruno Fernandes, Wout Weghorst, Rashford and Luke Shaw work together in search of the ball before it eventually found the in-form man who showed his class once more.
This was not the only time Manchester United exploited Arsenal from these situations.
The Gunners struggled in transition and gave the ball away quite a lot to their valiant opponents.
These scenarios are particularly dangerous because Arteta’s side are giving away opportunities for the opposition to counterattack in really menacing positions when Arsenal won’t have many players back.
Man City are one of the best counterpressing sides in the world right now and so Arsenal will be facing a team who are far better in defensive transition than Man United this Friday.
Pep’s men are incredibly brave and hunt the ball down in a pack regardless of how high up the pitch they have lost possession.
This is an area where City will certainly look to hurt Arsenal in the FA Cup this week and Arteta will need to have a plan in place to make sure that the Gunners are not susceptible to being counterpressed easily.
So what does this all mean?
With City bowing out of the Carabao Cup to a struggling Southampton and Arsenal running away with the league halfway through the campaign, the FA Cup may be the only piece of silverware that the Mancunian giants will win this season.
Guardiola will not want to make any mistakes in this one but will be facing a coach he imparted so much wisdom upon who now oversees the most in-form team in world football.
Whatever happens or whoever wins, this is a mouthwatering FA Cup tie and one which will have analytical nerds like us thirsty for more.