Even the greatest of optimists would struggle to feel good about Arsenal’s trip to Manchester City today (Sunday).
The Gunners have an atrocious record away from home against top six sides, we have struggled to put together 90-minute performances this season, and, despite recent improvement, our defence still makes Swiss cheese look like Fort Knox.
Add into that pestilential mix a raft of injuries to key players and you have yourself a good reason for a spot of pessimism.
In football, though, nothing is ever certain and there are still reasons to hope beyond hope.
Despite their early-season invincibility, Pep Guardiola’s side have shown over the last six weeks that they are fallible, more so than they at any time for about 18 months.
Against Newcastle, Leicester, and Crystal Palace, they have paid the price for wastefulness and, to an extent, arrogance.
In all of those aforementioned games, City have taken early leads (after just 25 seconds against Newcastle) but have failed to kick on in every case. They have had a few moments of misfortune, of course, but so do all sides, and it has been much more about taking their feet off the gas than it has bad luck.
Sir Alex Ferguson always said retaining a Premier League title was much harder than winning one and his words ring true in City’s case this season. Perhaps it is a lack of motivation, perhaps it is supreme complacency, but they have struggled to kill teams off and that has made them beatable.
The aura around Guardiola and his team saw them blast almost everybody into oblivion for 18 months but that aura has faded a little this winter, just enough for teams to hold on to some hope.
It would be foolish to believe that City are mere pushovers, of course. Despite their recent hiccups, they remain a powerhouse, an expensively assembled squad of supremely talented footballers led by one of the best coaches in football, ‘the best’ by Unai Emery’s measure.
But for all that, there should be motivation enough for Arsenal to believe they can get something from their trip north.
In order to do that, however, they will need to be every bit as aggressive and dogged as Palace, Newcastle, and Leicester. Most importantly, they will need to take the game to City and they will need to bury any chance, half-chance, or mere sniff of an opportunity that comes their way.
Efficiency is key in games against opposition of City’s calibre because it is unlikely we will be afforded many sights of Ederson’s goal. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, we have two strikers who are capable of doing just that but they will need to be sharp and someone who can deliver them they service required.
Against West Ham, and in the first half against Cardiff, our top two found themselves isolated because of a lack of attacking support. In those games Emery chose a cautious approach in midfield and it hurt us, it blunted our ability to do what we do best – score goals.
Our midfield diamond worked well against Chelsea and Tottenham and was effective in patches against Manchester United and that system allows a player like Aaron Ramsey to support the attack, run into half spaces, and also stay close to the opposition’s deep-lying playmaker.
Because of City’s overall prowess and Emery’s natural tendency towards caution, I would be surprised if he plumped for quite such an attacking formation, however.
Above all else, the Gunners must stay in the game. I know that sounds pessimistic but this is a team that is conceding a large number of chances and goals at the moment and we need to avoid a repeat of our mauling at Anfield.
Going a goal down would not be disastrous but going two down almost certainly would be.
If ever there was a time to produce a comprehensive 90-minute performance, it is today.