Three things we learned from Arsenal’s win vs. Manchester City

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Arsenal beat Manchester City 2-1 on Monday at the Emirates Stadium with the Gunners putting in a perfect counter-attacking display to boost their title credentials against a surprisingly lackluster City.

[ WATCH: Stream every PL game ] 

Theo Walcott and Oliver Giroud grabbed the goals to keep Arsenal second — with Yaya Toure curling in a late goal for Man City — and put them just two points behind league leaders Leicester City.

Here’s three things we learned from the battle between two title contenders.

CLINICAL GUNNERS GO BACK TO THE FUTURE

Arsenal were at their ruthless best for a clinical stretch at the end of the first half as Mesut Ozil — more on him below — set up both Walcott and Giroud to score in the final 12 minutes of the half. Despite sitting back and defending for large patches of the game, Arsenal did the damage when they needed to and this mature display over a fellow title contender mirrored their win at the Etihad Stadium back in January 2015 when a switch seemed to click in the heads of the players and manager Arsene Wenger. Going back to that game — where I asked Wenger about the beauty of Francis Couqelin’s display in the post-game presser — Arsenal found a way to win without dominating possession and used their pace on the counter to deliver heavy blows at crucial moments. Now, almost 12 months on from that new-found defensive blueprint they followed so successfully at City, they can roll out that kind of performance at home, just like they did earlier this season in a 3-0 win over Manchester United, as Arsenal had less possession but did more when they had it.

In the first 45 minutes the Gunners only had two shots on target and scored with both of them. The final possession stats read 63 percent for Man City and 37 percent for Arsenal. In truth, Arsenal could have won more convincingly but Joel Campbell lifted the ball over when he should have scored in the 53rd minute, then Joe Hart‘s face made a big save on Aaron Ramsey when clean through, plus Campbell forced Hart into another save in the 66th minute as his toe-poke was saved down low. Add in another chipped shot from Ramsey which he should have done better with and Arsenal certainly produced enough chances to win handsomely. Despite a late wobble they held on to win and made a big statement in the title race.

OZIL IS AN ASSIST MACHINE

Mesut Ozil has oozed class all season long. In his third season with Arsenal the German playmaker has sprung into life and is now producing magic assists on a regular basis. After setting up both of Arsenal’s goals on Monday Ozil, 27, now has 15 assists in the Premier League this season and in each of his last 11 games he has either assisted or scored. He’s rolling.

Both of Ozil’s assists against City weren’t wonderfully pleasing on the eye but his delicate passes into Walcott and Giroud teed them up perfectly and he found pockets of space in the center of City’s midfield where Yaya Toure was sleeping in the first half. Walcott curled home a lovely finish for the first and Giroud slammed home another with Ozil instrumental in the game-winning moments. That $60 million Arsenal paid Real Madrid for Ozil in 2013 is looking like pretty good business right about now.

Elsewhere in Arsenal’s midfield Mathieu Flamini and Ramsey (who should’ve scored but put in a tireless shift) held down the central spots superbly with the injured duo of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin missing. If Arsenal are to win the Premier League title for the first time in over a decade there is no doubt they will need contributions from their entire squad. There is also no doubt that Ozil will link everything together seamlessly with his silky skills.

CITY WASTEFUL

It took Manchester City until the final 30 minutes to wake up, but when they did they looked menacing. In the first half Kevin De Bruyne skinned Nacho Monreal on the inside and fired his shot to near post which Petr Cech saved, then the Belgian had a gilt-edged chanced in the 32nd minute when he went clean through after a mix-up in the Arsenal defense but instead of squaring to David Silva he flashed a shot wide of the far post. 60 seconds later Arsenal went ahead as a game-changing minute arrived. Despite having plenty of the ball, City were wasteful when they did get in and around the box as they lost for the third time in five games and are without a win in their last five Premier Leagu away games.

It took a moment of predictable laidback brilliance from Toure — who had been asleep for most of this game — to get City on the scoreboard and after that he took over the game with Toure stabbing a shot just wide and Wilfried Bony having an effort deflected wide. It was too little too late for City who missed Vincent Kompany terribly at the back, once again, and Sergio Aguero returned from injury but looked rusty in attack. With plenty of speculation around Manuel Pellegrini‘s future as City’s manager with Pep Guardiola said to be close to agreeing a move to take charge in the summer, being six points off the top on Christmas Day is far from ideal as the big bucks City spent in the summer aren’t showing on the pitch.

Benfica loanee Parks readies for playoffs with NYCFC

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Keaton Parks plays the kind of hard-to-quantify midfield role that sends both stat nerds and eye test takers to a very good place.

Barely 22, the New York City FC midfielder doesn’t stand out in any one particular area. Since arriving on loan from Benfica, the American shuttler (of sorts) ranks near the top of the club rankings in pass percentage and aerials won while chipping in tackles and successful dribbles.

[ MORE: PST talks public pitches, youth development with NYCFC director Reyna ]

He’s averaging near one key pass per game but has just a goal and an assist, due more to his responsibility in Dome Torrent’s system than a particular skill set (He has eight goals and seven assists across two-plus seasons between Varzim and Benfica B).

“In the midfield it really helps to play both sides of the ball,” Parks told ProSoccerTalk. “I take pride in doing that, and I love to make a tackle as much as getting in the attack and assisting or scoring goals. It doesn’t bother me that I’m not scoring or making all of the assists. I like to be the solid player who keeps the balance on the team.”

(Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

Parks has been an enigma to American soccer fans for some time in that he’s been in a celebrated club in Benfica but playing in a developmental role that’s near impossible to track without single-minded dedication to Portuguese football (Dramatic? Sure, but you try to catch every Liga Pro game).

But in moving to New York City FC to play under Dome Torrent, he’s had an easier transition than most due to his upbringing with Benfica, which annually ranks amongst the top possession teams in Portugal. Torrent, of course, left his last managerial gig at Girona in Spain to spent a decade-plus on Pep Guardiola‘s staff at Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City.

“Dome likes to play a possession style, a confident style,” Parks said. “I still have to fight for my spot on the team but the playing style I was used to right away.

“You can see the experience Dome has, and he mirrors a little bit of what Pep does, so it’s been amazing to be able to learn from him and see the experiences of the players he’s been able to coach in his career.”

NYCFC begins its playoff run on Wednesday against Toronto FC at Citi Field in Queens, and Parks says he’s feeling better after missing three matches with injury.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs — “We want to win the Cup and be at the top” — there is a question of what’s next for him, still on the books at a perennial UEFA Champions League club but very important with a CONCACAF Champions League club.

[ MORE: MLS Playoffs preview/predictions ]

“I’m just going to be looking forward to whatever club I’m at next, whether here or back at Benfica or wherever I am and also with the U-23s going into Tokyo next summer.”

He’ll, in theory, be an imperative part to Jason Kreis, ironically a former NYCFC man himself, and the Yanks bid for a first Olympic run in three cycles. The team should be powerful, and Parks is happy.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “We have so much talent on the team with guys playing first division all over the world. I believe we can make a run all the way to these Olympics.”
NYCFC and Toronto FC kick off 7 p.m. ET Wednesday at Citi Field.

MLS conference semifinal preview and predictions

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We’re not sure we should be allowed to make Major League Soccer playoff predictions after getting two upset bids wrong in the first round, but we go again anyway.

No, DC United did not outlast Toronto FC at BMO Field nor were the Portland Timbers able to get a win over Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto but… we got the other four right?

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

It gets trickier at midweek for the conference semifinals, as two of those six victors from the weekend face well-rested one seeds (We suppose they could be rusty, not just well-rested).

NYCFC v. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
TFC 4-0 NYCFC (April 29)
NYCFC 1-1 TFC (Sept. 11)

Toronto hasn’t lost since Aug. 3 (5W-6D) and is well-equipped to deal NYCFC’s possession system on a postage stamp pitch. NYC’s only loss in its last 11 was a throwaway loss to a desperate Revolution side in New England. TFC has a lot of experience in spots like this, but Dome Torrent’s done an incredible job with City. It’s a coin toss, but ultimately it feels like that coin lands TFC side up. 2-1 aet.

Seattle v. Real Salt Lake  — 10 p.m. ET Wednesday

Regular season:
Seattle 1-0 RSL (April 6)
RSL 3-0 Seattle (Aug. 14)

This one’s also close, as RSL has a number of players who won’t be bothered by the pressure but man is this home field advantage a real one. The Sounders only lost two home matches this season, and haven’t lost a home playoff match under Brian Schmetzer. Call it 2-0 for Seattle.

Atlanta United v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
ATL 1-1 Philly (March 17)
Philly 3-1 ATL (Aug. 31)

The Union are resilient, and Jim Curtin seeing success is an absolute joy. So deserved, but Frank De Boer is showing his mettle in making the tough decisions and Ezequiel Barco looks a terror. A side that is able to bring Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez off the bench is unfair. Atlanta, 3-1.

LAFC v. LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Regular season:
Galaxy 3-2 LAFC (July 19)
LAFC 3-3 Galaxy (Aug. 25)

Can hardly wait for this one. Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela look to send Zlatan Ibrahimovic packing after a riotous summer competition. LAFC is so, so good, and the lack of rest for the Galaxy is a problem. Still, betting against Zlatan seems borderline insane, and Jonathan dos Santos has big game mettle of his own. We’ll call it 2-2 and a place in penalty kicks, where David Bingham’s the difference for the Galaxy in a history-writing upset that takes El Trafico to the next level. Yes, we are predicting for storylines now.

Champions League preview: Chelsea, Liverpool hit the road

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Frank Lampard has a selection headache amongst his wingers as he tries to figure out Chelsea’s best avenue to break down Ajax on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League.

Youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic starred in the Blues’ weekend win, and Lampard also has Pedro and Willian available at Johan Cruyff Arena before a weekend visit to Burnley.

[ MORE: Dest choosing side this week ]

From ChelseaFC.com:

“Callum gave me that in his display from the start and Christian gave me that in his display coming on, and in terms of the wingers I have, Willian gave me that, Pedro gives me that so I have good selection problems when people come on and make a difference. That is what we are all about.

“The extra level that is the Champions League, the detail, the focus, concentration for 90 minutes, making the most of tiny moments, will be a test for all the young players, not just Callum.”

The good news for Pulisic in his bid to match wits with fellow USMNT (for now) player Sergino Dest is that he’s had experience on the UCL stage with Borussia Dortmund.

The other PL side in action is Liverpool, and the Reds will be expecting to get all three points in Belgium against Genk.

But Genk drew Napoli 0-0 at home on the second match day and the Reds will be wary of a slip-up.

“It’s a really good football-playing team,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp. “They are organized and brave in their positioning. They don’t play with the pressing line too much but go for second balls, have speed and good midfielders and very active full-backs.”

Klopp will not have Trent Alexander-Arnold (illness) and Joel Matip (knee).

Other highlights…

— American manager Jesse Marsch hopes to lead Red Bull Salzburg to a home win over Napoli when he matches wits with Carlo Ancelotti.

Antonio Conte‘s Inter Milan could really use a result against tricky Borussia Dortmund in Italy.

UEFA Champions League Wednesday schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Ajax v. Chelsea
RB Leipzig v. Zenit Saint-Petersburg

3 p.m. ET
Slavia Prague v. Barcelona
Red Bull Salzburg v. Napoli
Genk v. Liverpool
Inter Milan v. Borussia Dortmund
Lille v. Valencia
Benfica v. Lyon

Man City’s Guardiola issues Rodri update; Zinchenko also injured

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Man City boss Pep Guardiola expects to be without Rodri for at least a couple of matches after his heavily relied-on midfielder hurt his hamstring on Tuesday.

Rodri was removed from the match after 40 minutes, having partnered with Fernandinho at center back for the second-straight match.

[ MORE: Man City 5-1 Atalanta ]

A center mid and a fine one by trade, Rodri’s absence coupled with the still-hurt Aymeric Laporte leaves City significantly weaker in its heart.

“I think tomorrow we will know and hopefully it will be between 10 days if it is not broken,” Guardiola said. “If it is broken, it will be three weeks or one month.”

The club also announced before the match that Oleksandr Zinchenko had suffered a knee injury and will undergo tests.

City visits Aston Villa this weekend and then hosts Southampton in the League Cup and the Premier League before a visit to Atalanta in the Champions League.

That’s when Liverpool at Anfield arrives on the schedule, and the absence of Rodri would take some of the luster off of it for sure.