Battle of flair, as Arsenal faces Manchester City
Long portrayed as a lone idealist amid the cut-throat pragmatism of the Premier League, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has found a new ally in his Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola.
They face off at the Etihad Stadium today at a time when Guardiola’s attachment to attacking football has itself come under attack, following damaging losses to Chelsea and Leicester City.
Guardiola was derided after City’s 4-2 defeat at Leicester for saying he was “not a coach for the tackles”, but Wenger, often accused himself of prizing style over substance, came to his defence.
“Pep Guardiola, like myself, we are for offensive football and when you don’t win, people question that. And that’s as simple as that,” Wenger said.
“Overall, I think what he wanted to say is that he promotes a game that is positive and I agree with him on that. You respect him for that.”
Guardiola makes no secret of his admiration for Wenger and spoke out in support of the Frenchman in 2014 after he was branded a “specialist in failure” by long-time nemesis Jose Mourinho.
“This life,” Guardiola said at the time, “is not just about winning trophies.”
Ahead of today’s encounter, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach hailed Wenger anew.
“He has been here a long time. When that happens at a club such as Arsenal, it’s because a person is doing a good job,” Guardiola told his pre-match press conference.
“I understand it’s not easy to win the Premier League, but I have a lot of respect for his career.”
“I’ve said many times that I admire the way he tries to play and especially the quality of the players they like and they buy. I like a lot.”
City returned to winning ways on Wednesday with a 2-0 home victory over Watford, secured by goals from Pablo Zabaleta and David Silva.
His use of a back three having backfired against both Chelsea and Leicester, Guardiola reverted to a back four for Watford’s visit, leaving skittish centre-back John Stones on the bench.
It gave City a more solid look in defence, but as Guardiola demands that his teams dominate possession, he could elect to deploy an extra midfielder and switch back to a back three.
Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero remain suspended for City, while Ilkay Gundogan is likely to miss the rest of the season after suffering anterior cruciate ligament damage against Watford.
Wenger once again faces questions about his team’s backbone after their 14-game unbeaten run ended in a 2-1 defeat at Everton on Tuesday.
Alexis Sanchez put Arsenal ahead, only for Everton to hit back through Seamus Coleman and Ashley Williams as the visitors froze amid the Goodison Park roar.
It left Arsenal six points below leaders Chelsea in third place, with City a point behind in fourth.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman mocked Wenger for claiming Williams’s 86th-minute winner stemmed from an erroneously awarded corner.
But Wenger has defended himself, arguing that his comments merely reflected his will to win.
“In my job, people who like losing — believe me — they don’t last a long time,” he said on Friday.
“And concerning the referee: yes, I don’t agree with the performance of the referee against us on Tuesday night, but I didn’t say a word about it (after the game).”
Arsenal have gone six games without defeat against City, since a galling 6-3 loss at the Etihad in December 2013.
But Wenger has won just two of his previous eight encounters with Guardiola, whose Bayern team prevailed 5-1 when their paths last crossed in the Champions League last season.
Wenger reported no new injuries after the defeat at Everton.
Shkodran Mustafi’s absence with a hamstring injury means Gabriel will continue to deputise alongside Laurent Koscielny at centre-back.
Per Mertesacker (knee), Santi Cazorla (Achilles), Aaron Ramsey (hamstring) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain sidelined.
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