* ‘The guy who wants to be at the top has to be able to bounce back when people write him off,’ wrote Arsene Wenger in his programme notes. I’m not buying into the Daily Star’s exclusive claim that Wenger would decide his future purely based on the result against Manchester City, but the magnitude of this match did not require false hyperbole.
If Wenger truly can sign a two-year contract without a section of their support spontaneously combusting, he must pull Arsenal out of their Premier League slump. He spoke in the build-up to the game about the need for supporters to stick together, but he knows well enough that only a rapid upturn in form and performance can alter the mood.
This did not signal that upturn but nor did it mark another nadir. Arsenal were patchy at best and, while they were on top for periods against a Manchester City side whose defensive struggles are as obvious as their own, they never quite dominated the game. The visitors struck the woodwork twice in the first half and had a late penalty claim for handball turned down. It was Arsenal who were holding on as full-time approached.
This was not the disaster many supporters feared, but nor does a home draw put the wind back in any sails. Arsenal are now nine points behind Liverpool and seven behind Manchester City. Games in hand can only account for so much of the shortfall. The top four really does look unlikely for the first time in 20 years.
* This was a match that showcased the faults of both sides far more obviously than their strengths, and one that reiterated that the top four is the rightful ceiling on their realistic ambitions for this season. The truth is that neither merit anything better. If you can’t defend, you can’t succeed.
In fact, the last half-hour was hardly enjoyable, the game slowed down to a walking pace with passes sent astray and chances not created but being gifted by chance or lax defending.
Perhaps it is the result of an international break during which almost every player on show covered hundreds (and some thousands) of miles, but both teams looked puffed out with 20 minutes to go. Yaya Toure played the half at walking pace after his introduction, while even Kevin de Bruyne struggled for the accuracy that defines his game when at his best. Both sides were given the chance to seize a crucial victory but, if the inclination was there, the aptitude wasn’t.
* Pep Guardiola can be accused of many things, but dull formations is not one of them. If the experiment with Fernandinho playing at right-back and defensive midfielder simultaneously was intriguing, his team selection for the game at the Emirates was bolder still.
My best pre-match guess was a 3-1-3-2-1, with John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Gael Clichy playing as defenders and Fernandinho playing in ALL OF MIDFIELD and at right-back. Jesus Navas and Leroy Sane were picked out wide, but basically given responsibility for the whole of their wing. That left Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling behind Sergio Aguero, with Sterling give licence to interchange with any of the wide men.
I was wrong, of course, but if you’d have asked me to name City’s right-back on Sunday morning I would have guessed incorrectly at least seven times before Navas’ name was mentioned. File this one under ‘optimistic assessments of a player’s strengths’.
* If Arsenal needed a quick start to appease supporters, they did the opposite. I’m sure Wenger does give team talks and discusses plans just before a match but Arsenal began as if they had just woken up and realised they were on a football pitch. There was no defensive organisation, and twice – even before City opened the scoring – they threatened to exploit those frailties.
* Dele Alli may be favourite to retain his Young Player of the Year crown, but I’m falling deeply in love with Sane. Between Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez, the Premier League has two of the finest wide forwards in world football. In Sane, we might just have the best young winger.
The German’s game is not particularly complex, but incredibly difficult to stop. He stays close to the halfway line when City are without the ball, close to the touchline too. Guardiola’s theory is that whatever Sane can offer tracking back is more than matched by his danger on the counter-attack.
When City win the ball and shuttle it to De Bruyne or Silva, the pair have two options when looking for the left winger. The first is to send the ball over the top and let Sane use his wonderful pace down the line, before cutting inside and looking for forward options. The second is for Sane to run inside and have the ball played through the middle, between full-back and central defender.
It’s easy to criticise Hector Bellerin for his role in City’s opening goal, but Sane’s threat is so difficult to thwart. Bellerin cannot stand too far off his man, or Sane will be given the ball into feet and run at Bellerin, but if he stays too tight, as he did in the opening five minutes, Sane has the run on him and gets in behind.
That said, Wenger must be concerned by Bellerin’s fall from grace this season, as this was the latest example of the right-back’s defensive struggles being exposed. The only positive spin is that Barcelona might back off.
* That opening goal really should have been the signal for Manchester City to overpower Arsenal, taking advantage of the mood around the stadium to grind their opponents into the dirt. A second goal after less than a quarter of the game would surely have brought outright mutiny to the stands. Think in this situation: What would Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United have done?
And yet, as so often with City this season, they took their foot from the gas in infuriating fashion and thus allowed their opponents back into the game. Rather than punchy, Guardiola’s team were ponderous. They sat back and invited Arsenal to enjoy possession and territory.
It cannot be down to fatigue, because we were far too early in the game for that to be the explanation, and so we must assume that it was by design. When you defend as badly as City this season, there is fault in that design.
* And so it proved, when Gael Clichy did what Gael Clichy will eventually end up doing, playing Theo Walcott onside despite his colleagues stepping out appropriately. Walcott even had time to pause as the ball became muddled under his feet before stabbing past Willy Caballero.
There are many hundreds of words that could be written about City’s abject defending this season, but brevity is the soul of wit and we only need six: Gael Clichy has started 27 matches. That’s more than he managed in the whole of last season, when he was already half way to the elite club glue factory.
* It didn’t take long for conclusions to be drawn on the ‘Jesus Navas at right-back’ experiment, and the biggest surprise was that the Spaniard made it until half-time. He committed a poor challenge on Nacho Monreal for which he was booked and could easily have been sent off, and had already been left for dead by Sanchez, who must have laughed at his good fortune. This was more ‘Jesus, Navas’ than Jesus Navas.
Yet Arsenal let Navas off the hook. Almost 45% of Arsenal’s first-half attacks did indeed come down the left wing, compared to 27% centrally and 29% down the right, but why was this figure not higher still? City had displayed an obvious weakness, and yet Arsenal showed no intention to target Navas and either see the Spaniard sent off or cause further headaches for the makeshift full-back.
For balance, it should be said that Navas grew into his full-back role and performed far better after half-time. Now that I’m done with balance, I also want to say that it should never happen again.
* As if to complete the cycle of City frustration, making their supporters want to scream light blue murder or perform a Citizens arrest (mercifully I have no more of these puns), they promptly switched straight back on after conceding the equaliser.
Less than two minutes after Walcott’s goal, De Bruyne sprung into life, Silva found the perfect pass, and Aguero swept home the finish past a weak David Ospina dive to give City a 2-1 half-time lead. The ease of the move gave the impression that the visitors were toying with Arsenal, allowing hope to fester before extinguishing it like a cat letting a mouse believe it has reached freedom before a quick swipe of the paw.
Yet City’s second-half performance quickly dispels that notion, or at least proves that they are ineffective mousers. Guardiola’s is a flawed team capable of playing majestically in moments, but without the discipline, fitness or understanding (and it’s probably a combination of all three) to maintain that over the course of an entire game.
The managerial cliche is “due to give someone a hiding”, and Manchester City this season are the epitome of that. When they click into gear you are left both applauding their magnificence and asking why it doesn’t happen more often. October 2015 was the last time City scored more than four times in a league game.
* Arsenal have received plenty enough criticism over the last few weeks/months/years that is only right that praise follows their second comeback. It would be a stretch to say that the home side managed the game well and dominated the second half, but they at least equalised through Shkodran Mustafi and managed to keep a clean sheet for an entire half of Premier League football for the first time since February 11.
That was most impressive given the departure of Laurent Koscielny with an Achilles problem at half-time, and the arrival of Gabriel Paulista. The Brazilian’s reputation for catastrophe precedes him, but there were thankfully few mishaps after an initial short backpass to David Ospina. The Mustafi-Koscielny partnership will be further tested in the coming weeks.
* I get that football is not ‘only a game’, but nor is it a matter of life and death as Bill Shankly so famously claimed. Despite the trials and tribulations of following your club, it should still provide your escapism from the daily trudge. I can accept tears, either during moments of missed opportunity or pronounced failure. I can accept anger and resentment, when your club has been mismanaged to the point of extinction or is threatened with self-inflicted financial implosion or relegation.
But if the mere presence of your manager, and the opposing opinion of other supporters on that manager, makes you do this, then just don’t go to the football. It isn’t doing you any good, and your family will be well within their rights to stop loving you.
— S_U_H (@15suhayb) April 2, 2017
* While that isolated incident is obviously ridiculous, a word for the majority of Arsenal fans who truly did seem to get behind their team during the second half. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the team earned a point from behind, but it was reassuring to hear supporters cheering on their team rather than hanging them out to dry.
* Is there anything more Arsenal than Walcott petulantly throwing his toys out of the pram after being substituted following another disappointing performance? “Why me?” his look says. “Because you offered next to nothing on your wing and, despite the goal, it was worth giving someone else a go,” everyone responds.
You’d think Walcott would be used to it by now.
* I honestly cannot fathom the opinion below, unless the Daily Mirror’s John Cross is merely spinning the line that Sanchez is now persona non grata for refusing to sign a new contract. I offered some (admittedly ambitious) arguments this week for Arsenal selling Sanchez, but even I could not stretch to ‘he isn’t good enough’.
This performance should put anyone off Sanchez. There's generally a reason why big clubs like Barcelona sell good players.
— John Cross (@johncrossmirror) April 2, 2017
The same person then expressed amazement when Walcott was substituted, and wrote in his match ratings that Sanchez ‘occasionally did well when he lifted a leg’. Eesh.
This week, Sanchez started for Chile in a game that finished in the early hours of Wednesday morning. He flew back to London on Thursday, and first trained the day before the game. His performance was not perfect, of course, but to use it as evidence for why everyone should be put off signing him is plain weird.
For the record, Walcott failed to create a single chance, completed three passes in the City half and had 22 touches of the ball playing wide right. Playing wide left, Sanchez had 83 touches of the ball, created two chances and won possession more times than any other player on the pitch. Game of opinions, and all that.
* Has any Premier League player suffered a greater loss of status than Kelechi Iheanacho? Since starting in the EFL Cup Manchester derby in October, the Nigerian striker has started three matches in all competitions, one of which was a dead rubber Champions League group stage match at home to Celtic.
Iheanacho has played 32 minutes for City since the 4-0 defeat at Everton in January, and was not even picked in the matchday squad at the Emirates. He needs a season-long loan deal this summer to stop his career from stalling.
* I’ll ask the question for the third or fourth time this season: What actually is the point of Granit Xhaka?
Wenger has previously said that tackling is not the Swiss international’s forte, and that was obvious when his midfielder failed to offer any resistance to Manchester City’s early assault and then flew into a challenge on the halfway line and was booked. That’s six yellow cards and a red in his last eight Arsenal starts.
Xhaka’s backers say that it is his passing that justifies his selection, but he gave the ball away with more than 20% of his passes on Sunday. Even if that is below his usual standards, keeping possession tidily doth not a £35m signing make. Right now, Borussia Monchengladbach are stifling a laugh.