Sunday’s Carabao Cup final may well be won and lost in the middle of the park – so who will come out on top?
Mezut Ozil and Kevin De Bruyne are both magicians on the ball at times, but how either side cope out of possession will be equally important at Wembley.
So whose midfield will come out on top in Sunday’s final, live on Sky Sports? We take a look…
Who will control the game?
There have not been many games this season where Manchester City have not dominated the midfield battle. Their flying full-backs have helped overload the middle and even final third of the pitch – for instance, only De Bruyne and David Silva have made more passes ending in the final third than Kyle Walker.
The two wide defenders have tucked in when in possession, allowing De Bruyne and David Silva to flex their attacking muscles.
That would leave the back line vulnerable if it were not for City’s traditional midfield heart, which has stepped up a gear this season.
Playing in a team which does not concede too many opportunities, Fernandinho has proved a colossus for Pep Guardiola and has really stepped up his game this season. He’s been a rock in front of the back four, making 41 interceptions and taking on 134 aerial battles.
Those numbers are both well ahead of any of his counterparts at the Emirates, but he’s also made more than 550 passes into the final third – and his overall passing accuracy, at 90 per cent, is equally impressive.
In the Carabao Cup semi-final, Arsenal managed to nullify Chelsea fairly well in both legs, bar the opening 45 minutes at the Emirates.
But it’s not something they’ve managed to do too many times this season. Granit Xhaka is improving, as the statistics show. He’s won 34 tackles at a success rate of 74 per cent, but he is not the finished product.
Granit Xhaka scored the winner in the second leg of the semi-final with Chelsea
Arsenal’s lack of a defensive midfielder has been apparent for some time, and Francis Coquelin was clearly not Arsene Wenger’s answer.
As a collective, the Gunners’ midfield has made 80 fewer tackles and 18 fewer interceptions than City’s, which highlights how they’ve not stamped their authority on the middle of the park in the same way as the league leaders.
Jack Wilshere’s return gives some hope but his defensive statistics are some way off Xhaka’s and like his Swiss colleague, being an anchorman is not his style.
If Arsenal are to overcome their opponents in the middle of the park, they will have to work as a collective unit to keep their discipline, and plug any holes in between defence and midfield to stop De Bruyne, as well as Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, from finding pockets of space to run at their back line.
Man City v Arsenal midfields in numbers (expected line-ups in final) Minutes played in PL Goals scored Chances created Passes ending in final third Headers won Interceptions and blocks Tackles won Man City Fernandinho 2255 3 16 561 76 45 27 David Silva 1737 5 43 823 14 13 14 Kevin De Bruyne 2317 7 84 1009 15 19 35 Arsenal Granit Xhaka 2352 1 28 762 31 37 34 Jack Wilshere 911 1 9 253 6 9 9 Mohamed Elneny 479 0 5 124 2 3 4 Two masters of midfield
Mesut Ozil may continue on the right of a front three as he did against Tottenham in their last league game, but we are drafting him back into midfield for the purposes of a comparison with Kevin De Bruyne.
Both of these players have it within their power to stamp their authority firmly on proceedings, and Ozil has played more than 500 minutes fewer than his rival in the Premier League this season.
But the days of the German’s 19 assists in 2015-16 look a fair way behind him, and De Bruyne is firmly in the driving seat on current form when it comes to making goals.
Guardiola has undoubtedly brought the best out of the baby-faced Belgian, and Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports he has grown into the Premier League’s best ever passer.
Arsenal vs Man City
February 25, 2018, 3:30pm
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“The way his imagination and his brain works is another level to everyone else,” he said. “The great players buy themselves time, the game looks like it stands still when they’ve got the ball and De Bruyne has that capacity. He is unique.
“I think you have to credit the manager because when he first got into the team, he was drifting around between the left and the right, but what he has become now is a central midfield player.
“He’s not a luxury player, he tackles, makes interceptions and he is the complete midfield player right now.”
Ozil recently signed a new deal at the Emirates and his seven assists for the Gunners are the best among their ranks, and has turned it on at times this season – memorably in their 2-0 win over Tottenham at the Emirates in November.
If he is at his peak, he will be a real handful for Fernandinho and co with his guile, energy and passing range, and new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is cup-tied for the final, thinks despite the emergence of De Bruyne he is the best in the world in his traditional role at number 10.
Ozil helped run the show in Arsenal's 2-0 win over Spurs in November
“Everyone knows that Mesut is one of the best players in the world,” he told Arsenal Player.
“It’s only happiness and joy to play next to him because he understands very well the football game, he has great vision, he has amazing technique and he’s the best in his position.”
Watch the Carabao Cup final live on Sky Sports Football from 3.30pm on Sunday, February 25