Arsenal host Manchester City this weekend in a match that pitches two Premier League title contenders together. Both sides will likely be missing several important players through injury and suspension, but what impact will those absences have on the game? We use the data to investigate.
For such a young player, Bukayo Saka has played a lot of football. And we mean a lot. His last Premier League appearance against Bournemouth was his 142nd overall, and aged 22 years and 25 days old at the time, Saka became the seventh-youngest Premier League player in history to hit that number of games. The youngest? Wayne Rooney, who was exactly a year younger than Saka when he played his 142nd game, and someone whose powers waned in his late twenties.
Mikel Arteta really hasn’t had to contend with the prospect of Saka not being available for selection. In Arteta’s three full seasons to date, Saka has never featured in fewer than 90% of Arsenal’s matches and has now played in 87 consecutive Premier League games – the longest current streak of all Premier League players and the longest streak ever in Arsenal’s club history.
But with Saka limping off after barely half an hour against Lens in the Champions League, there’s real concern Arteta will be without his young talisman for their crunch game against Manchester City.
To say Saka’s loss would be a huge blow is an understatement. He’s flourished into one of the most dangerous wingers in world football, and someone who is such a consistent source of goals (both scoring and creating) for Arsenal. Since Arteta’s arrival, Saka has more goals (41) and assists (36) in all competitions than any other Arsenal player. His assist for Jesus in France in midweek made him the first player to record 5+ goals and 5+ assists in all competitions this season for a team in Europe’s big five leagues. He is such an all-round dual threat.
There’s a strong argument to say that Saka, and his position on the right-wing, is the only area in the squad where Arsenal still do not have a suitable back-up. They have considerable depth from the left (Gabriel Martinelli, Leandro Trossard, Reiss Nelson) and down the middle (Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah), but no one naturally suited to fill Saka’s void. Fabio Vieira replaced Saka in the Champions League on Tuesday, but he’s a very different type of player: a slower, more considered passing playmaker compared to the direct and speedy goal threat Saka offers.
What Arsenal will miss the most is Saka’s direct threat in one-on-one matchups, and his ability to beat his opposite man. He ran Destiny Udogie ragged in the opening exchanges of the north London derby, and although the Spurs full-back recovered admirably as the game wore on, it was a glimpse into the danger Saka can pose all on his own.
Saka has been involved in more one-one-one situations (101) than anyone else in the league so far this season and has both attempted and completed more take-ons than any Arsenal player. That direct threat will be massively missed.
In the short term, assuming that Saka will indeed miss this weekend’s match, the likelihood is that Jesus will be pushed to the right wing, with Nketiah starting centrally.
Should Saka miss out, then Arsenal will feel the absence of Gabriel Martinelli even more keenly. Martinelli hasn’t appeared for Arsenal since limping off against Everton last month with a hamstring injury. The Brazilian still hasn’t returned to training, so his inclusion against the league leaders this weekend looks unlikely.
Without both Saka and Martinelli, Arsenal will lack real explosiveness in wide areas. Martinelli is Arsenal’s fastest player – his top speed of 34.7 km/h is faster than any teammate has clocked this season – and without him, Arsenal offer significantly less threat in behind. Martinelli has averaged 11.5 runs into the opposition attacking third so far for Arsenal this season, more than any Arsenal regular, and the graphic below shows how many of those runs have been from out-to-in down the left.
Against Lens, Arsenal often lacked an incisive, penetrative option in behind, with their wingers preferring to drift wide or receive the ball to feet. In the example below, Nelson pulls out wide and asks for the ball to be played to him. Jesus is occupying his marker and so Nelson would have been free to run into the space, stretching the defence.
Manchester City won’t defend as deep against Arsenal as Lens did but exploiting the spaces down the sides of City – which can become narrow in their 3-2 shape – is crucial.
Without Saka and Martinelli, that becomes a lot more difficult.
Despite of the vast sums of money City have spent in recent years and the incredible squad Pep Guardiola has put together, they are somehow in the barely believable position of being totally and utterly reliant on their defensive midfielder. No Rodri, no party for Pep.
In the last two summers, City have spent approximately £128 million on central midfield options in Matheus Nunes, Mateo Kovacic and Kalvin Phillips, while they also have full-backs perfectly comfortable inverting into midfield, such as Rico Lewis. And yet they have scarcely looked less like they have an alternative to Rodri in that position.
Part of the problem with Rodri is that he is almost always available – he has only missed 15 of the 159 Premier League games City have played since he joined – so there is very little chance for them to get used to playing without him. It showed last weekend.
The 2-1 defeat to Wolves, in which City had a lot of pallid possession (68%) but little in the way of clear-cut chances (0.87 xG in total), was the latest game the Spaniard had missed, and City were way off their best. Their record in games he has missed is genuinely awful.
They have lost 33% (five) of the 15 Premier League matches he has missed compared to 13.2% when he plays. They win 60% of the time when he is missing, compared to 74.3% with him. They concede 1.1 goals per game without him compared to 0.8 when he plays.
The 15 games he has missed makes up only a small sample size, but the difference on the pitch is so stark that his absence is worthy of note – it clearly makes a massive difference to City both in and out of possession. That much was laid bare at Molineux, and they face a much better side – though stylistically very different – in Arsenal this weekend.
With Rodri missing, it should be easier for Arsenal to keep City at bay, while they could also look to threaten on transition more than they might usually. That was the key to Wolves’ win and could be crucial in this game, too.
Kevin De Bruyne
When Kevin Be Bruyne suffered a recurrence of the hamstring injury that forced him out of last season’s Champions League final in the opening Premier League game of this campaign, everyone else harbouring title ambitions – namely Arsenal – spotted an opportunity. This was the kind of long-term absence that might level the playing field ever so slightly. Guardiola described his talismanic midfielder as “irreplaceable”, and it was hard to disagree with him.
But now, seven games into 2023-24, City are top of the Premier League and remain huge favourites to win the league, and thus become the first team ever to win four successive English top-flight titles. Although they could of course have done with De Bruyne at Wolves, their run of six wins from six to start the season – the joint-third best start by any team to a Premier League campaign – with the Belgian missing suggests that it wasn’t specifically his absence that was the problem at Molineux. Unlike Rodri, De Bruyne is prone to injury and regularly misses chunks of a season, so Guardiola will likely always have an alternative plan up his sleeve.
This season, his replacement has been Júlian Álvarez, who has ensured City have not felt the void left by De Bruyne. As detailed on these pages last week, Álvarez has been dropping deeper and has been much more involved in build-up play than last season, playing off Erling Haaland rather than as his replacement up front. He has been a huge goal threat, with only four other players having had more shots (22) or shots on target (10) than him in Premier League games this season, while providing creativity as well, ranking fifth for both chances created (19) and chances created from open play (14). He is no De Bruyne but he has done a decent impression of late, and this week he came off the bench to score one and set up another in the win at RB Leipzig.
That said, De Bruyne is a big-game player, and the impact he has on games like this one will be particularly difficult to replicate. He raised his game for the biggest occasions (when injury didn’t force him off) last season, most notably and relevantly against Arsenal in what were almost, at the time at least, two title play-offs. Over his 167 minutes on the pitch across those two meetings, De Bruyne scored three goals and provided two assists. That accounted for 21.7% of his Premier League goal contributions for the season in just 6.9% of his game time. Against their main title rivals.
This weekend’s game against Arsenal could therefore be the worst one for Guardiola to be without De Bruyne, and his absence should be a huge boost for Arsenal.
Remember John Stones? You know the one, he was so good last season that they named an entirely new role after him.
Stones last appeared on a football pitch in the Community Shield at the start of August. He played 90 minutes at Wembley but has been missing ever since with a hip injury that has dragged on infuriatingly for both Stones and his manager.
He may be back on Sunday, having made his return to the matchday squad at Leipzig on Wednesday, though it may still be too soon for him to go back into the starting XI. Particularly in the absence of Rodri, Stones’ ability to step into midfield could have been especially useful.
Guardiola doesn’t really have any established senior member of the squad (sorry Rico Lewis) available to play a hybrid defender-defensive midfielder role. Manuel Akanji was tested there in midweek, but it wasn’t a wholly convincing display, and having Stones back could have been a huge boost to Guardiola’s hopes of playing his preferred system. Stones, in that role, was integral to the two wins over Arsenal last season and to the entire run of form that saw City storm to the treble. In the 20 games at the end of 2022-23 after Stones switched to that hybrid role, City conceded 0.5 goals per game, down from 0.9 per game before that.
This season, with Stones entirely absent, City’s opponents have been able to progress up the pitch at an average speed of 1.38 m/s – the seventh highest in the Premier League – which represents a 16% increase on their Premier League low of 1.19 m/s last season.
Those differences can’t be attributed wholly to Stones’ presence, or lack thereof, and City’s results so far this season show that they have managed well without him. But whenever he does make his return, his team will be far better for it.
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