* Talk about incentive. If the growing threat of a chasing Manchester United was not enough, Manchester City and Arsenal were handed another reason for motivation just hours before their clash on Sunday.
Tottenham’s defeat to Southampton meant that Arsenal could draw level on points with their bitter north London rivals. A win for City would not only put them above their opponents in the table, but it would open up a four-point gap over United. The victors would almost guarantee Champions League football for next season.
Unfortunately for both sides, the race to be crowned runners-up to Leicester resembles less a sprint and more a drunken steeplechase. Tottenham had held the mistaken belief that they had crossed the line months ago, falling asleep just metres short of the finish line and allowing the others to catch them. United had been taken to the emergency room after slipping up and landing on their faces, yet could somehow still drag themselves onto the podium. City and Arsenal have been attempting to overcome the embarrassment of soiling themselves long ago. In both the blue and the red corner, this was another chance at redemption.
* Panic beset the Arsenal fanbase an hour before kick-off as the line-ups were announced. As eyes scanned towards the bottom, there was one notable absentee. Where on earth was Mesut Ozil?
A slight hip injury was Arsene Wenger’s diagnosis. Heading into a crucial game against one of their closest opponents, Arsenal had lost their most influential creative outlet. Ozil has completed 142 key passes this season; Arsenal’s next best is Alexis Sanchez with 58. The Gunners had scored 59 league goals prior to Sunday’s game, and Ozil had played a direct role in 24 of them.
The visitors were notably more blunt in attack in the absence of the German, but that is to be expected. Instead, their previously profligate finishing rescued them. Arsenal recorded just two shots on target against City, and that was all they needed to earn a point which, on reflection, they will be content with. St Totteringham’s Day will surely be cancelled for the first time in 20 years if Tottenham avoid defeat to Newcastle on the final day, but Champions League qualification after one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory will help Arsenal deal with the hit to their pride. Only a set of freak results would render this the first campaign in which Wenger does not secure qualification to Europe’s elite competition. Every cloud, eh?
* It was a similar story for City. ‘Plenty of positive noises coming from the
#mcfc Twitter faithful about that team,’ read a tweet from the club’s official Twitter account. They had presumably muted any mentions of ‘Jesus f***ing Navas’.
The Spanish winger represents just why Manuel Pellegrini will leave Manchester City not as fondly remembered as a man with three trophies in as many seasons should. For all intents and purpose, Navas is no longer good enough for a side with ambitions to win silverware on four fronts; he never truly was. Yet he has now played the most Premier League games of any Manchester City outfield player this season.
Navas was not terrible against Arsenal, but being average should not be his remit. He attempted five crosses. Just one qualified under Opta’s remit of a ‘good cross’. You could not find a more succinct summation if you ran to the byline in search of one, before failing to beat the first man with startling consistency.
* Within the opening ten minutes, both sides provided a microcosm of two similarly infuriating seasons. Excellence intertwined with incompetence; incisiveness mixed with inconsistencies; attacking flair coupled with defensive deficiencies. This was not a Sunday afternoon Premier League game, this was performance art in its purest form from Manchester City and Arsenal.
After registering just one shot in one of the most important games in the club’s history on Wednesday, City burst out of the blocks at the Etihad Stadium. In 90 minutes of Champions League semi-final football at the Santiago Bernabeu, Real Madrid faced just one shot on target. Inside a quarter of an hour on Sunday, Sergio Aguero scored one and could easily have had another. The hosts were dominant in the opening stages; why could they not play like this just days prior?
Arsenal were overwhelmed from kick-off, and yet equalised just two minutes after Aguero’s opener. A communication mix-up between Gael Clichy and Joe Hart almost resulted in the left-back handing a goal to his former side, but it appeared as though City had escaped as the ball trickled beyond the post and out for a corner. From the resulting set-piece, Olivier Giroud lost his marker, and managed to score his first Premier League goal since January. The Frenchman had ended a run of 15 league games without a goal, and all it took was two moments of suicidal defending from the opponents. Who knew?
* While one striker finally found his goalscoring form, another simply continued his ineffable brilliance. Sergio Aguero’s 24th goal of the Premier League season was perfectly executed, the Argentinean firing a low shot into the only area of the goal Cech could not have reached. He now sits just one behind Harry Kane in the race for the Golden Boot.
Aguero will forever be overlooked when it comes to wider recognition, it seems. His absence from the PFA Team of the Year is explainable by the rise of Jamie Vardy and the continued progression of Kane, but the Argentinean’s talents are taken for granted all too often. In truth, his ordinary is our extraordinary, his regular our spectacular. Much is made of how Pep Guardiola will feel about a lack of Champions League football next season, but the competition deserves to be a stage for the game’s greatest players as well as managers. That Aguero could be absent next year is a terrible shame.
* ‘Olivier Giroud lost his marker’ is how I described the scenario for Arsenal’s equaliser. It is a rather generous outlook. When replays are required to actually identify who was supposed to prevent the forward’s path to goal, you know someone has seriously failed in their objective.
Predictably enough, Eliaquim Mangala was found to be the culprit. The central defender has looked a more than questionable purchase at £40million, but has shown the briefest glimpses of ability. Yet Giroud was able to evade his compatriot, position himself dead centre of the goal, check his phone, rush back to make sure he had turned the oven off, jump unopposed and adjust to head past Hart. Mangala managed to trap himself between Nicolas Otamendi and Fernando as he attempted to retrieve Giroud before escaping, inexplicably running straight past him, jumping two feet short of the ball, and leaving the striker with a simple header. Just check the following tweet for much more detailed analysis.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) May 8, 2016
It is often overlooked just how difficult it is for a player to acclimatise to a foreign land, but regardless of Mangala’s thoughts on the Manchester rain, food or nightlife, his penchant for struggling with the most basic of defensive tasks is actually quite impressive. Pep will be pleased.
* With Ozil missing, Arsenal’s tally of proven match-winners was halved. And Sanchez has hardly excelled in that field during a difficult season. But with 20 minutes remaining and Arsenal trailing, the 27-year-old stepped up to rescue a crucial point. After a run of 11 Premier League games without a goal from October to March, he has now scored seven goals in nine.
No-one else in this Arsenal side offers what Sanchez does. For his goal, the Chilean sauntered forward with the ball before exploding into action, exchanging a one-two with Giroud – whose lay-off was as good as his overall performance – and firing past Hart. The Gunners required a moment of inspiration with City in the ascendancy, and Sanchez delivered.
For a player who spends a disproportionate amount of time on the wing, Sanchez remains the focal point of Arsenal’s attacking play. Only Aaron Ramsey had more touches (76), no player had more shots on target, and Giroud was the only teammate to create more chances. If Arsenal are to challenge next season, recent reports of Sanchez’s unhappiness and arguments with his manager must be quelled. He is only narrowly behind Ozil as the club’s most valuable asset.
* While one of City’s much-maligned central defensive duo erased a fairly positive performance with one moment of idiocy, the other was excellent throughout. Otamendi has faced criticism – some fair, some not – since joining the club from Valencia in the summer, but he continues to prove his worth. After some notable instances of indecision in his early City career, the 28-year-old has become the leader of a troubled defence.
Otamendi made five tackles, ten clearances and six interceptions, and gained possession ten times – more than any other City player for each statistic. The Argentinean’s acrobatic clearance when Giroud was well-placed to score was a highlight, but Otamendi excels where Mangala does not in that he relishes the basics of defending. The Frenchman may be the more athletically gifted of the two, but Otamendi is just as capable of engaging in a good old-fashioned, bruising battle with a striker as he is of playing the ball out from defence; he completed 26 more passes than any other player on the pitch. With Vincent Kompany having suffered his latest injury setback before the game, City have already found the natural successor to their captain. It’s his partner that Guardiola will worry about.
* The last time Arsenal visited Manchester City, something changed. The Gunners had forever been regarded as a team who did not lack quality but suffered from a shortage of fight and grit. Facing a battle to finish in the top four – ’twas ever thus – Arsenal travelled to the Etihad in January 2015 needing to dispel such claims. Perceptive passing football can overcome the likes of Bournemouth and Aston Villa, but it was rarely enough against a fellow member of the elite.
And so, on that cold January Sunday, Arsenal stepped up. They defied their critics. They confounded their doubters. They won 2-0 with a perfect counter-attacking performance. The orchestrator? Santi Cazorla.
One wonders where Arsenal would be had the Spanish midfield maestro not missed five months of the season. Cazorla was phenomenal in that 2-0 victory 18 months ago, dominating a central midfield containing Fernandinho and Fernando, winning and scoring a penalty then assisting a second. The 31-year-old ensured that Arsenal’s passing game was retained to some degree, but he led the charge with tough tackling and tremendous leadership. At 5ft 5ins, he was the largest presence on the pitch.
Fast forward to Sunday, and that same City midfield pairing of Fernando and Fernandinho dealt rather more easily with the multi-faceted threat of Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny. The Welshman continues to divide opinion, while the Egpytian is still settling into this Arsenal side. With Cazorla available however, they are a different prospect.
* In an alternate world, Arsenal are eighth in the Premier League table heading into the final day. They trail leaders Leicester by 27 points, and are just five points ahead of Chelsea. Even victory over Aston Villa on the final day will not see them finish above Liverpool.
That alternate world is one shared by John Terry, Ian Wright and Bob Wilson, among others. In the summer, the Chelsea captain lamented the club’s decision to sell Petr Cech to Arsenal. “He will save them 12 to 15 points a season,” said the 35-year-old.
“I would say he is probably worth more than 15 points,” was goalkeeping coach Wilson’s reply in January. Whether it is ten, 12, 15 points or more, it is now clear that simply upgrading your goalkeeper from competent to a level below excellent cannot transform a team into title challengers.
Petr Cech has conceded more goals from outside the box than any other goalkeeper this season (10). That can't just be bad luck.
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) May 8, 2016
On both occasions against City, Cech was beaten at his near post. Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne’s goals were fine finishes, but considering the keeper was billed as the difference between a top-four finish and a Premier League title in the summer, more should be expected of the 33-year-old. Cech has enjoyed some brilliant games in an Arsenal shirt, but he has endured some high-profile mistakes, too. It turns out that signing a reserve keeper from one of your rivals does not equate to signing an elite striker.
* The two youngest starters at the Etihad Stadium were two of the more disappointing performers. Kelechi Iheanacho’s place in the starting line-up was more than justified after he impressed in recent weeks. Alex Iwobi has quickly become a crucial aspect of this Arsenal side. But at 19 and 20, our expectations of Nigeria’s two brightest stars must be tempered. Iheanacho wasted a glorious chance for City as he led a three-on-two charge through the visiting defence, only to choose the wrong option at the death. Iwobi struggled in the No 10 role early on, and failed to acclimatise as Arsenal changed systems during the game. At clubs who hold youth production in high regard, the two forwards will suffer setbacks throughout their development, but they will be given ample opportunity to progress. They are both in the right place at the right time.
* Welcome back, Jack. Reports this morning claimed that Wilshere’s place in England’s Euro 2016 squad is assured. The midfielder would have expected perhaps half an hour to impress against City from the bench. Injury has plagued him this season, but this time he benefited from Danny Welbeck’s suffering. Hopefully initial reports of his England teammate having suffered quite substantial damage to his knee are unfounded.
For Wilshere however, it was a promising display. While some return from a lengthy lay-off with the training wheels still on, the 24-year-old was crashing into challenges as if he had played more than six minutes of elite football in the last 11 months. Only Ramsey made more tackles, and no Arsenal player registered a higher passing accuracy. Consider the cobwebs blown off.
Wenger was impressed. “He’s shown today that he’s well prepared physically. His performance was encouraging and positive overall,” said the manager. Mr Hodgson is panting rather heavily as we speak.
* Two Premier League titles. An FA Cup. Two Capital One Cups. A Community Shield. It is no coincidence that Manchester City’s trophy cabinet began to fill after Yaya Toure arrived from Barcelona. The midfielder has played a crucial role in each piece of silverware, scoring 26 goals across the title-winning league campaigns, hitting the winner in the FA Cup final, scoring decisive goals in each League Cup showpiece, and netting in the Community Shield win four years ago.
The Ivorian’s City career included the highest of highs and the lowest of birthday cake-related lows, but he will be sorely missed by the Etihad faithful. Incoming manager Guardiola may hand the 32-year-old another contract, but Toure unfortunately looks a spent force – what a force he was at the peak of his powers. That should not be forgotten despite his rather more languid style of late.
* After the drama of this season, it is most certainly a thankless task to predict who will win the 2016/17 Premier League. Leicester have been tentatively added to the established list of challengers, but doubts remain over the Foxes’ title defence even despite this season’s heroics.
According to a leading bookmakers, the 2-2 draw witnessed on Sunday was played out by the two favourites to win the title next season. Manchester City are rated at 6/4 shots, with Arsenal at 11/2. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool all follow, ranging from 5/1 to 9/1. Leicester, 25/1 to suffer relegation, are the same price to defend their title.
Pep Guardiola is one of the leading coaches in football. He has won 20 trophies in seven seasons at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, counts numerous Coach of the Year honours to his name, and is still only 45. But as undoubtedly impressive as his CV is, are we not all guilty of horrendously underestimating the task at hand for the Spaniard? As Daniel Storey wrote in midweek:
‘Pep Guardiola will realise that the job facing him at the Etihad Stadium is a far tougher assignment than the one in Germany. City’s squad is littered with those who can be loosely filed under either not good enough, no longer good often enough or won’t be good enough for much longer.’
Throughout his managerial career thus far, Guardiola has been accused of taking the easy route. Make no mistake: overhauling this City side is no simple task. And if they are already billed as title favourites, the expectation to deliver immediate results could weigh heavily.
* Goodbye then, Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean undoubtedly foresaw a far grander occasion for his final match at the Etihad, and would have expected a more positive result, but this encapsulates the charming man’s reign perfectly: Promise followed by disappointment.
In the build-up to the game Pellegrini’s record was discussed in the Sky Sports studio. Only Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have higher win percentages as a manager in the Premier League. No team have a better record at home than City since Pellegrini was appointed. Those facts only tell half the story. The Chilean is an excellent boss, but not a member of the managerial elite. His home record was once imperious, but the club have lost five home games this season; only nine teams have lost more. Failure to beat Arsenal means that City will end the season having won just one game of 12 against the other sides in the top seven. Only Everton, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Watford have registered fewer points in games against Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham and Southampton.
Pellegrini was the right man at the right time. Succeeding the fiery Roberto Mancini, Pellegrini once expressed an air of confidence and serenity. His quiet demeanour earned him an affectionate nickname from an adoring support, but it has now become part of the problem. He will not be remembered as fondly as perhaps he should have been, but the 62-year-old has taken City as far as he can; now it is time to take another step up.
* As one under-fire manager waves farewell to a support which once adored him, only for some to turn against him, another tightens his grip on the wheel. This has been the toughest of Arsene Wenger’s 20 years in charge of Arsenal, and yet they could still finish second.
What will matter to the Frenchman is an almost assured place in the Champions League for yet another season. The fans will have a different outlook. This season has undoubtedly been the biggest of missed opportunities for Wenger and Arsenal to end their 12-year title drought. The 66-year-old’s belligerence and stubbornness has cost him.
Whether next season is Wenger’s last, time will tell. But if he remains in charge, he must show that he is willing to listen, to accept criticism, to change his ways. The Gunners were the only club in Europe’s top five leagues not to sign an outfield player in last summer’s transfer window. That same mistake will not be made again, and players Wenger has blindly trusted for too long have been linked with moves away. He will be afforded another opportunity to ensure his legacy is not one tainted by glorious failure when he enters the final year of his contract next campaign. For once, he will not enjoy the personal support of the majority of the fans.