Pep Guardiola is grappling with a midfield conundrum for Manchester City’s visit to an Arsenal side he believes have established themselves among the Premier League elite once again.
While Guardiola issued a positive update over the injured Kevin de Bruyne, the Belgian will be missing for Sunday’s clash while midfield general Rodri serves the last game of a three-match domestic ban.
Kalvin Phillips and Mateo Kovacic have been deployed in the holding role in the Spaniard’s absence although City lost on both occasions – at Newcastle in the Carabao Cup and at Wolves in the league.
Guardiola lamented how difficult Rodri is to replace and will decide closer to kick-off how best to plug the gap in a fixture many observers view as significant in the title race.
“(Rodri is) maybe the best or in the top two or three best holding midfielders in the world,” Guardiola said. “He’s not here and we’ll have to find a solution with our players and how we want to play.
“When you have an absence as important as him you have to have a solution. I am not going to deny how important Rodri is, like how Kevin is, but when they are not here we cannot start to cry.
“He is not here, we will find solutions and decide how we are going to press and play.
“The moment in my mind when a player is not there, he is completely out and I don’t think about it. He is not there.”
Defeat at the Emirates Stadium would be the first time City have been beaten in successive league games since December 2018 – and Guardiola is wary of an Arsenal team managed by former protege Mikel Arteta.
Arteta, a former assistant of Guardiola’s at the Etihad Stadium, has led Arsenal out of the doldrums. The north London club endured a few years out of the top four but they were the closest challengers last season to City, finishing just five points adrift of Guardiola’s all-conquering treble winners.
The Gunners are now hot on the heels of current league leaders City and represent a stern test for a side bidding to bounce back from last weekend’s surprise 2-1 defeat at Molineux.
“Arsenal is back to where they were when they fought with Sir Alex (Ferguson’s Manchester United) team,” Guardiola said. “When I arrive here they were not there and now they are back.
“In the calendar you see when you have to go to the Emirates Stadium. The recruitment they have done is exceptional, with (Declan) Rice and (Kai) Havertz.
“Absolutely (they are City’s main title rivals), along with Liverpool from what we’ve seen.”
Guardiola confirmed John Stones is unavailable for selection this weekend – despite the centre-half being named in England’s squad for matches against Australia and Italy later this month.
“No, he’s not ready to play,” Guardiola said. “Maybe for the national team, but not us.”
De Bruyne is another absentee, with the 32-year-old sidelined since the opening game of the season in August after undergoing hamstring surgery that was expected to keep him out for up to four months.
While he is still a way off a first-team return, Guardiola is optimistic of having De Bruyne back sooner rather than later.
“Kevin comes in at different times, either before training or for his treatment,” Guardiola said.
“After training he sees physios and so on. Of course I see him every day and he’s getting better, and his mood is good. Hopefully sooner than expected he will be back.”