Why Declan Rice & Jorginho hold the key for Arsenal in their title showdown against Man City

A look at how Mikel Arteta's tactics have evolved when he takes on Manchester City - and where the game will be won and lost.
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These two sides have been here before – Arsenal and Manchester City, facing off with the Premier League title on the line. Liverpool’s presence in the race means that things might be a little bit more complicated than they were last February and April, when City blew apart Arsenal’s title challenge, but the equation will be fairly simple on Sunday. The side who come out with three points will have a substantial advantage down the home stretch.

Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal side saw a healthy lead at the top of the table wither away in these matches last season. City won 3-1 at the Emirates to narrow the gap, and then 4-1 at the Etihad to all but seal the title just two months later. In this fixture last year, in particular, Arsenal were simply blown away by a side who were far, far better than them.

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Since that crushing defeat ended the dream of a first title in two decades, however, Arsenal have edged their title rivals. A penalty shootout win in the Community Shield may not have counted for much, but they edged City out 1-0 in a cagey game in North London earlier this season, thanks to Gabriel Martinelli’s deflected late goal. So what has changed between now and April, why were Arsenal able to win at the Emirates against a team who took them apart just a few months before, and how can they repeat the trick this weekend?

In the 4-1 win last season, Arsenal, knowing it was a match they simply had to win, came to the Etihad with attack in mind. It didn’t work. City picked them apart on the counter-attack time and again, with Erling Haaland dropping off the centre-halves to find vast swathes of room in which to receive quick forward passes. He set up Kevin de Bruyne twice, came close to scoring himself, and eventually wrapped the win up with his unbridled hair streaming in the wind, one of the defining images of the tail end of last season.

But as disappointing and frankly humbling as that defeat may have been at the time, Arteta learned his lesson. When City visited the Emirates back in October, Arteta changed formation to incorporate Jorginho alongside Declan Rice in a deep double pivot rather than asking Oleksandr Zinchenko to step into midfield from left-back. It was a decisive change.

That deeper double pivot worked wonders. Since the arrival of Haaland, Guardiola’s City have become considerably more direct in their passing play, regularly looking for quick vertical passes through the middle of the pitch to set up overloads in central areas. With Rice and Jorginho sat directly in front of the defence as a protective screen, not only did they stop those passes from reaching their destination but they also denied Haaland the space between defence and midfield that he dropped into and exploited so effectively last April.

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City ended up with just one early shot on target, cleared off the line by Rice, and managed just four shots on goal in total – the lowest number of attempts on goal from a Pep Guardiola side since 2010. It was a masterclass in exerting control over a game with a single change in tactics – but it wasn’t without cost. Arsenal went toe-to-toe with City but needed a slice of luck to actually win the game, and created very few clear-cut chances of their own.

Arguably, they can simply aim to repeat the trick on Sunday. They are a point ahead of City in the table, and a draw would be a better result for Arsenal than for the hosts. With so much on the line and a proven defensive set-up for the fixture, it wouldn’t be any surprise if Arteta decided to play it safe, as both sides did in October.

But Guardiola is nothing if not adaptable. His habit of coming up with left-field set-ups for key matches has seen him accused of ‘overthinking’ on many occasions, but what the Spaniard is unlikely to do is to walk right into the same Arsenal strategy without a Plan B. If City can change the way they play to get the ball wide and exploit width more, they could easily leave that double pivot marking an area that isn’t really important.

The injury that Kyle Walker, who will not play this match, sustained on international duty makes things harder. City’s only ‘natural’ right-back, his pace would have made it much easier to create attacking overlaps down the flanks rather than through the centre. But Guardiola will know that the wide areas will likely be key – and he won’t fall into the same trap twice. Probably.

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That decisive 4-1 win in this fixture 11 months ago made it appear as though there was still a substantial gulf between those two sides, and it’s tempting to feel that if Guardiola gets his tactics right, then City’s quality should shine through once again – but it’s worth remembering that most recent matches have been much closer than they sometimes appeared from the scorelines.

In the 3-1 with at the Emirates last February, Arsenal controlled possession for large periods of the game and probably were, on balance, the better team for 80 minutes. It was a late collapse and some bad moments when in good areas that let them down – Eddie Nketiah’s free header which he made a mess of and sent harmlessly wide at 0-0, Takehiro Tomiyasu’s bad touch in defence which set De Bruyne through to lob Aaron Ramsdale and give City the lead. That game could so easily have swung the other way.

Arsenal certainly can’t afford the same sort of slipshod mistakes. City are rarely anything other than ruthless, after all. In particular, the visitors will have to be sharp in attack. Gabriel Jesus’ movement in the channels was impressive in the 1-0 win this season, but a series of injury issues have restricted the Brazilian to just two starts and one goal in the league since the turn of the year.

There’s every chance that Guardiola lines up with Kai Havertz as a sort of false-ish nine again, with the German having been impressive and productive in that role before the international break. That would change the dynamic again in attack, with Arsenal likely forced to work the ball through the middle more often to take advantage of Havertz’s deeper positioning, compared to Jesus.

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That would put a lot of play through Rodri’s zone of influence, not typically a winning strategy given that it has been over a year since the Spaniard was last on a losing side. The alternative would be to go more direct – using Havertz’s deeper positions to draw to draw the centre-halves high and then springing direct balls over the top to Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli (if, indeed, they are fit).

Manchester United had some early success in the recent derby defeat against City using that tactic and took the lead, but slowly withdrew into their shell after a promising start and stopped finding direct passes that bypassed the City midfield. Arsenal will need to learn from that, too – even if Arteta is usually loathe to try and play the ball over a high line, it’s a key strategy for unlocking the sky blue defence, especially with the absence of Walker’s pace and skill at sweeping up long passes. Neglect that and try to play quick exchanges on the ground in tight spaces as they usually do, and they could play right into City’s hands.

There is little room for error for either side on Sunday. It is likely to be a tight, measured affair until the scoring starts, with both managers aware that a defeat will damage their chances of taking the title home. But the key will be how City work the ball to get around Rice and Jorginho, and whether Arsenal can exploit City’s defensive line. The manager who makes the right moves will take a big step towards winning the title.

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