Given the summer departures of Arsenal's two best players during the 2011-12 campaign, Robin van Persie and Alex Song, it's a minor miracle that the Gunners have traversed their first five games of the season without incident.
Four Barclay's Premier League games and one Champions League match, against solid, if not exceptional teams, have yielded three victories, two draws and only two goals conceded. Both of these concessions were individual errors, with one by Wojciech Szczesny against Southampton, and the other by Thomas Vermaelen against Montpellier. Steve Bould may well be the "acquisition" of the summer for the Gunners.
Expectations should be tempered, however, as the Gunners have yet to play a top side. Montpellier looked exceedingly dangerous in the second half of their Tuesday defeat, but have endured a torrid start to their Ligue 1 campaign, tallying three losses in their first five games, en route to lying 16th in the domestic table. Testing the notion that Arsenal have a shot at winning the league this season is a difficult away trip on Sunday to the Etihad Stadium in Manchester.
While the City Stadium remains a bit of a fortress for the blue Mancunians, their defensive form, having shipped six goals in the EPL, and three against reigning La Liga champions Real Madrid, should leave Arsenal and its fans hopeful of securing a positive result. In order to do so, however, the Gunners will need to prevail in several respects.
Defensively, Vito Mannone will once again be deputizing for the injured Szczesny. He needs only to maintain his excellent form. Tactically, however, I suspect Laurent Koscielny may well be back in the starting lineup for Per Mertesacker. The gangly German has started the season in good form, forming an effective tandem with Vermaelen. Against a fit-again Sergio Aguero, however, I suspect Koscielny's tackling prowess and quickness, relative to Mertesacker, will be Wenger's preferred pick in central defense.
While individually terrific, the combination of Vermaelen and Koscielny has not always borne fruit for the Gunners. It will be imperative, and no doubt hammered home by assistant coach Steve Bould, that the pairing must support each other and keep their defensive shape in order to cope with Aguero's pace, and Nasri's and Silva's forward-thinking creativity.
In the midfield, Abou Diaby cannot have a repeat performance of his time in Montpellier. He gave away the ball on far too many occasions, including once inside his own 18-yard box. While Arteta can be counted on to be tidy with possession, and very efficient with his passing, the same cannot yet be said for Diaby. He must replicate the form he showed in his opening two league games in order for Arsenal to keep a hold of a deeply stacked Manchester City midfield. Yaya Toure will be the linchpin for City, and minimizing his possession in the middle of the pitch will limit the opportunities they will have to exploit the historically porous Arsenal defense.
Santi Cazorla is in line for a big game, even by his standards, as the synergy between the Gunners' front six players is improving with each passing week. Combined with a relatively slow Gareth Barry, and Premier League debutante Javi Garcia, the former Malaga player will be counted on to stretch the City midfield, and feed the front line the Fabregas-esque quality balls that Arsenal fans have quickly become used to seeing.
Lukas Podolski and Gervinho have quickly and authoritatively established themselves in the nascent campaign. Gervinho has found rapid success in a central role, while Podolski's understanding with Cazorla has led to the German often turning centrally when running at opposition defenses. Both offer very good speed, which Gervinho, especially, should put to good use against the likes of Joleon Lescott. His pace and footwork were never in question when he played on the wing last term, only his final ball. Transitioning him, rather than Theo Walcott, to a central position looks to be an inspired decision by Arsene Wenger, and one that has paid immediate dividends.
Podolski, though, will be the key to Arsenal breaching Joe Hart's line this Sunday. His quintessential German industry, both offensively and defensively, will stress the likes of Maicon or Kolarov, both of whom like to bomb forward when the opportunity arises. His pace, ball control, and most importantly, his excellent reading of space, will place the onus on City to stop him from combining with his Spanish and Ivorian teammates in the final third. The greater the focus on Podolski, the more space there will be for Gervinho to make use of his athleticism and speed.
Arsenal no doubt have a difficult task ahead of them in trying to take points off of Manchester City at the Etihad. A draw would be a welcome result, but the Gunners have a greater chance of snatching a win on Sunday than they did in the same fixture last season. Full of confidence, creativity and, after eight strikes in the past week, goals, Arsenal need only continue their recent form and convert the opportunities that fall their way to get a meaningful result.
For the North London side, the season begins now. If they can take four or, knock on wood, even six points off of Manchester City and Chelsea in the next ten days, Arsenal can confidently look forward to November 3rd, and the opportunity to show Robin van Persie why he made a terrific mistake in turning his back on the team that made him into the player he is today.
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