Pep Guardiola is counting on his newly-acquired Portugal international to pull together a shaky City backline and prevent Arsenal forward running riot
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang showed exactly how to tear open Manchester City’s troubled defence just three months ago and Pep Guardiola will wary of him doing it again.
After barely three weeks with the club, and more than half of that spent away on international duty with Portugal, Ruben Dias is the man charged with the task of pulling together a defence that has failed to keep a clean sheet in three Premier League matches this season.
The £62 million ($79m) signing from Benfica was chucked into the starting line-up to face Leeds United just days after arriving and made a solid start to show why City were convinced that he can be the long-term future for the club.
Now Dias faces an even bigger test against Aubameyang with the Arsenal striker set to recover from an ankle injury and return to action on Saturday, looking to terrorise City’s shaky defence all over again.
Even at this early stage, it’s a pressure game. City have been lacklustre in their opening fixtures and could have already been a major distance behind biggest rivals Liverpool but for their shock capitulation at Aston Villa. City quickly need to start to rebuilding their confidence if they are to make a title challenge, starting with Arsenal.
Equally, victory at the Etihad Stadium would be a statement for Mikel Arteta and his revolution. The Gunners haven’t beaten City in the Premier League for five years, but the way they unpicked City’s high-pressing game plan in the FA Cup semi-final means they will travel without fear.
It is to the Gunners’ boss credit that the clash is no longer a sideshow about Guardiola versus Arteta; master versus apprentice. He showed at Wembley that he has a plan to beat his old boss, now it is up to Guardiola to respond.
“It’s not easy to play against good teams and Arsenal always have been and are now especially,” Guardiola conceded. “[Against Arsenal] we have the chance to find ourselves. We have to look what they do but we have to find who we are as a team.
“We played 60 good minutes against Wolves, a good 25 until we conceded a goal against Leicester. We played [the] 30 first minutes against Leeds and the last 15. And [we are] still not able to sustain 90 minutes right now in a high level for many, many reasons everybody knows. We have to try to sustain who we are for as much as possible.”
Arsenal smothered City’s threat at Wembley and in Aubameyang, Arteta has a forward who can ruthlessly expose their defensive weaknesses as he did when he struck twice brilliantly.
The Gabon forward started on the left of a front three that day, alongside Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe, who will likely be replaced by summer signing Willian for the rematch.
That would likely put Aubameyang more in direct contact with Kyle Walker and he cleverly sneaked away from the right-back on his blind side to score the FA Cup semi opener.
But it is when he switches to a central position that he causes most damage, cutting inside or making clever runs from outside to in, in a similar fashion to the ones that have been so effective for City’s Raheem Sterling.
Of course, it can’t simply fall on Dias to nullify his threat but the 23-year-old is a natural leader and needs to impress himself on a defence and team that has lost its way in stopping the opposition.
While that could be put down to a lack of sharpness after a virtually non-existent pre-season for many players following the Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon, they need to sharpen up quickly.
And there can be no similar excuses for the way they were beaten at Wembley when Arsenal were pressed high into their own box but had the courage and conviction to escape and cause City problems.
“[That match] showed how good they are,” Guardiola said. “They showed they had more desire than us to reach the final because, in football the wish, the hunger and desire for them was so important.
“For a manager who arrived not too long ago to reach the final [was important], for us it was just the semi and they had more desire and that was the reason why.”
There have been horrible individual moments. Against Leicester, Walker, Eric Garcia and Benjamin Mendy each gave away a clumsy penalty for Jamie Vardy to convert.
In the defeat to Arsenal it was more a problem as a unit. The high line was too often crooked with full-backs playing too deeply and Aubameyang made the most of the mess when he raced clear of Garcia to score the killer second.
Dias has more pace in the Spaniard and would stand a better chance in a foot race but first he must shape and organise the defence to stop the threat earlier.
Guardiola could even start with a back three, pitting Dias directly against Aubameyang. He tried the system when facing a similar threat from Lyon although it backfired catastrophically in the Champions League. A more senior line-up of Dias, Aymeric Laporte and fellow summer signing Nathan Ake might be better equipped to guard against speedy counter-attacks.
A clean sheet against Arsenal would be a welcome morale boost to a struggling defence. To get that, City must stop Aubameyang and the bulk of the responsibility falls at the feet of Dias.