1) Ninety-two days. Ninety-two days since Arsenal said goodbye to Arsene Wenger and Manchester City closed time on a record-breaking Premier League season. Ninety-two days that have included a wonderful World Cup, shortened transfer window and a changing of the Arsenal guard. Everything changes, but still everything takes time.
If anyone did expect there to be a significant shift in power from the blue of Manchester to the red of north London, they were poor, misguided fools. A lot can happen in 92 days, but a lot more remains the same. Manchester City are still the team to beat. Arsenal are still a team pressing their noses against the glass and watching the Premier League’s elite from the cold outside.
This was an afternoon to reinforce the disparate positions from which Pep Guardiola and Unai Emery are starting this season. City were far from perfect and occasionally slapdash, but there is a clear vision that every player is schooled and drilled in. Emery must find a way to imprint his own philosophy on this Arsenal side, and on this evidence it will take some time.
City outclassed their opponent in every moment when it felt like they were playing at full pelt. If that’s a depressing thing for an Arsenal supporter to read – their team only able to establish a foothold when their opponents slackened – it doesn’t change the truth.
2) But Arsenal should not feel disheartened for long. This was never going to be an instant fix, and nor should it be. Better teams than one in the embryonic stages of a new era will be dismantled by Manchester City this season. Anyone saying ‘Oh what’s changed from the Wenger days?’ is answering their own question. After long-term decay, you can’t pop a lick of paint on something and pretend it’s new. That’s not how it works.
On commentary for Sky Sports, Gary Neville spoke of Emery needing three or four transfer windows, and that’s entirely appropriate, even if it feels a little depressing to measure football in those terms. Remember what happened to Guardiola at City in his first season, and he was coming from a position of far greater investment.
Whether Arsenal will give Emery time is a question for far further down the line, but it would have taken an optimist to expect this team to suddenly cope with the champions. As I wrote in Big Weekend, this was the worst match for a new manager. There is nobody better than City at identifying and exploiting weaknesses. How could Arsenal ever hope to be flawless?
And yet there are valid concerns about how Emery goes about his task. He prefers a pressing strategy that begins with the forwards, but Arsenal don’t really have the attackers for that task. Pressing also requires that central defenders play with a high line, but in Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi he has two central defenders who will struggle to cope. Ideally you would have a goalkeeper comfortable in sweeping up, but Petr Cech is ever slower off his line.
The question for Arsenal’s first season under Emery, if he is indeed the man for the long term rather than sacrificial lamb, is how much he compromises on his own brand of football to fit the needs of this squad. Without vast swathes of cash to spend on improving it – and Stan Kroenke’s full takeover is unlikely to help on that front – Emery may have to swallow some pride.
3) I got some stick after the publication of our preseason predictions for saying that there were reasons to think that Manchester City ‘might’ be weaker this season, but ‘might’ was the operative word. There is an inevitable complacency that comes after winning the title, Guardiola will be expected to improve City’s performance in the Champions League and he did not get the central midfielder that he wanted. Those are all reasons for believing City could be weaker.
But there is a more persuasive argument for saying that City might be stronger. Benjamin Mendy was outstanding at left-back and immediately solves that issue from last season. The central defensive partnership – more on them later – looks settled while Riyad Mahrez has something to prove after a club record move and Bernardo Silva is desperate to impress and is still just 24. The competition for places is so fierce.
Even in early season, and considering the sloppiness that is forgivable in August, City look a daunting prospect. They had 17 shots to Arsenal’s nine, nine corners to Arsenal’s two and again registered over 550 passes. Most impressive was that they had 33 touches of the ball in Arsenal’s box, but allowed Arsenal only 14 in theirs. And this was a team playing at 60% for the last 20 minutes.
4) Was this weekend bad news for Alexandre Lacazette? Perhaps. Emery chose to make bold calls in midfield and defence, but still has likely starters to return to the team over the coming weeks. In attacking areas, this was surely the manager’s first-choice selection for the biggest matches.
Emery always faced a conundrum of how to get Aaron Ramsey in the team without leaving the most defensive midfielder exposed, and the solution was to pick an extra player in the middle to let Ramsey roam further forward and help Ozil. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang excellent since joining in January, that leaves Lacazette out of the side.
Whether this is Ramsey’s best position is open to debate. He attempted only 11 passes in the entire match, 15 fewer than his previous minimum in the Premier League, so we can be sure that it means we see far less of the Welshman. On this evidence, it doesn’t allow Ramsey enough magic moments to make things happen. Might he be better in a 4-3-3, running from deeper?
Of course Lacazette’s chance will come. Against weaker opposition he may dovetail with Aubameyang, one of them nominally starting on the left but regularly switching positions. He will still be crucial to Emery this season.
But that won’t alter Lacazette’s initial disappointment. Arsenal’s major striker signing of last summer is now no longer first-choice forward in the club’s biggest league games. That should sting.
5) But if Lacazette will be frustrated at the lack of start, what must Bernd Leno think? The goalkeeper moved to England having missed two league games in five years in the Bundesliga, but immediately found himself on the bench for only the third time in his entire club career.
Presumably Leno did not leave one club that has fallen from Champions League grace and into the Europa League for another in order to play less football. Perhaps Emery is merely getting his new goalkeeper used to his new environs and will make him first choice soon enough, but Leno will surely be keen to get some clarification on that soon.
For Petr Cech, an unexpected stay of execution having been in pretty wretched form for the last two years. If everyone thought that the departure of Wenger might end the loyalty to a goalkeeper struggling to keep the fire of his career alight, think again.
6) There were surprises in the City team too. If you were to pick one of Guardiola’s players that would be refreshed and desperate to get back on the pitch and prove his talent, Leroy Sane would be the name on most people’s lips.
Yet Guardiola kept the German on the bench and started Raheem Sterling, despite the fact that he had only had five days of preseason training. For those who constantly opine that Sterling will fall away from City’s centre stage, Guardiola has other ideas.
Kevin de Bruyne was given the extra rest, on the bench in favour of Bernardo Silva after his wonderful Community Shield display drew significant praise from Guardiola. City’s manager picked two regulation central midfielders in Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, presumably to counter Arsenal’s likely counter-attacking threat under Emery.
7) There is a deep shared desire for the mood to change at Arsenal, and you could feel that in the early minutes of the game. Every tackle was roared, every quick passing interchange applauded more warmly than usual. Having demanded change last season and finally seen change come, fans in a full stadium were once again full of goodwill.
Unfortunately, goodwill and cheer has little currency when it comes against a team as classy as City. After an initial assault was weathered with some ease, City began to dominate possession and find flaws in Arsenal’s approach. Guardiola’s team pressed the ball high up the pitch and began to panic Arsenal players in possession. On multiple occasions, a pass was shanked out of play or straight to the feet of a player in blue.
Cech was indicative of this panic. He regularly invited pressure from a City attacker by dwelling on the ball, but then showed himself entirely incapable of displaying the skill to get out of danger. All that then ensues is panic. The highlight of the half was Cech almost nonchalantly kicking the ball into his own net while attempting to pass the ball to his teammate.
8) Arsenal’s left-back issues have been well-documented this week. Sead Kolasinac has been ruled out until at least October, while Nacho Monreal returned from the World Cup with an issue that has still not cleared up. In the build-up to the game, Emery earned widespread raised eyebrows for suggesting that Danny Welbeck had been training in a full-back role in case he was needed.
In the end, Emery chose Ainsley Maitland-Niles in a position that he had played several times last season. As a central midfielder by trade, and with Kyle Walker bombing on from right-back, it was clear that Maitland-Niles would need some help on that side.
That help was far too often lacking. Maitland-Niles looked like a scared child for most of the first half, unsure whether to get tight to Riyad Mahrez and thus over-commit and allow Walker to overlap and receive the ball, or to back off and allow Mahrez to deliver a cross. It goes without saying that neither were ideal options.
Maitland-Niles was eventually forced off after 35 minutes with an injury, but in truth it was a mercy substitution. A young kid was trying to help out his team, but was given no support. He should feel let down by his colleagues.
9) When the first goal came, it started down the right flank but was finished by Manchester City’s roaming left winger. Sterling’s finishing for club and country has come in for intense – and deserved – scrutiny since the beginning of last season, but he gets into so many promising positions that you can forgive the occasional missed chance.
Within 15 minutes Sterling had his first league goal of 2018/19, and there was no doubting the finishing this time. He got the ball to feet before dancing his way across the edge of the box and firing low into the net. So simple was it that Manchester City’s bench did not immediately realise that a goal had been scored.
That attacking style became the hallmark of City’s afternoon. They would pass the ball around defence and midfield before eventually finding Mahrez as the out ball around the halfway line. The attack would then be principally formed down the right, dragging Arsenal across the pitch. That created space for Sterling on the left. The other tactic was to hit Arsenal on the counter, using Walker as the overlapping option far more than Mendy or Sterling popping up on the right wing. Both worked brilliantly.
10) For all City’s excellence, we do have to question Arsenal’s defending on the goal. Sterling had already dribbled past three defenders in the box five minutes before his goal, so it was clear that a defender needed to stay tighter to him. Having failed to learn that lesson, Sterling was able to score the type of goal that might occur at the end of a long training session.
And then there’s Cech. Arsenal’s goalkeeper was clearly unsighted by at least one teammate, but there was no secret as to where Sterling’s shot was going and it did not go right in the corner. Quite why Cech did not manage any more than a limp, half-arsed dive is open to debate.
11) Arsenal’s response to conceding first was to initially collapse in on themselves, proof that the mental fragility and inability to cope with adversity did not leave with the departure of Wenger. How could it, when the entire fabric of this club was sculpted in their former manager’s image over a period of more than 20 years.
There are players at Arsenal who require a hard reset, more coaching and more tactical cohesion after existing for too long without enough of either. If that was always going to take time, here was emphatic proof.
12) At times like these, the only thing that looks like it can beat City is City themselves. After taking the lead, Guardiola’s team created four or five overlaps and yet failed to force Cech into a serious save other than from a Mahrez free-kick and follow-up shot. Too often, Sergio Aguero, Gundogan or Mahrez made the wrong decision with a pass and allowed Arsenal to thwart the danger.
If City can avoid complacency and remain exact throughout matches, which is surely Guardiola’s ultimate aim, they may well be unstoppable against almost every team in the Premier League. There is so much talent coached so well that this remains the cherry atop the cake.
So it might sound ludicrous, but parts of City’s display will have annoyed Guardiola the perfectionist. They were slapdash after half-time, time-wasting and thus allowing the game to become fragmented. The introduction of Lacazette even unnerved them at the back for the first time in the entire match. This is not what Guardiola preaches.
13) But panic does not last long at Manchester City any more, and they killed off the game after 65 minutes by doing what they do.
The second goal actually came from an unusual lapse in City attacking, when Aguero went through on goal and showed particularly un-City like selfishness. De Bruyne, recently introduced as a substitute, sprinted to catch up with play and present himself as the best option for the square pass. Aguero took the shot and had his effort saved, must to De Bruyne’s chagrin.
Within a minute, Aguero was thanking Silva profusely. Sterling collected the ball in midfield and ran at Arsenal’s defence, waiting for the perfect moment to put Mendy on the overlap. The left-back’s cross was played to the penalty spot, where Silva had delayed his run beautifully to let the defenders all pass him. The finish was exquisite, lashed past Cech.
Silva is an interesting character in this City season, often overlooked in discussions of the club’s best attacking players. But Guardiola has been mightily impressed with his work in preseason and the Community Shield, and is grateful for his attitude last season when used mostly as a substitute. This season, with his namesake David a year older, Silva should expect more minutes.
14) Emery copied his predecessor in putting huge faith in youth by picking Matteo Guendouzi, and perhaps Lucas Torreira is not yet up to speed. But a game of this magnitude came too early for Guendouzi, who battled gamely throughout but was ultimately outclassed. He did show moments of tenacity to win back the ball, but also suffered from lapses in concentration.
This is not intended as an insult to Guendouzi. He is 19 and was signed from a Ligue 2 club, so his first ever top-flight minutes came in a start against Manchester City. He will hopefully be made stronger by the experience, because it won’t get much harder than this.
But you do have to question why Emery chose to pick him alongside a player in Granit Xhaka who is not particularly mobile and who offered his partner far too little protection. In Xhaka’s defence, he was occasionally trying to give Maitland-Niles and Stephan Lichtsteiner help on the left. But it just didn’t work.
15) One interesting thing to note about Emery’s Arsenal was just how hard Ozil was asked to work. Rather than a No. 10 as we might expect, or drifting wide player, Ozil was picked as a right winger (with licence to roam) with Ramsey pushed up highest in the middle.
As part of that job, Ozil was tasked with looking after Mendy’s sprints forward – surely one of the hardest jobs in the league. In the German’s defence, he rarely shirked his duties. This might be an unfamiliar task, but Ozil is aware that he will not be mollycoddled by the new manager.
This is a crucial season for Ozil and so these are crucial weeks. After his World Cup travails and subsequent fall out, he is aware of the need to disprove the doubters more than ever before. Becoming a hard-working right winger would be one way to dispel the notion that he doesn’t like to get dirty.
16) On commentary, Neville pointed out that this was a Manchester City side without Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, their first-choice central defensive pairing from last season. Neville is absolutely right, but it might be foolish to consider that both will come back into the side quickly.
In Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, Guardiola has the perfect central defenders to fit his philosophy. Neither is weak physically or particularly slow, but their forte is in playing the ball out from the back. Having started them as a pair and kept a clean sheet against Chelsea in the Community Shield, Guardiola stuck with that plan against Arsenal and achieved similar satisfaction.
For all Otamendi’s surprising excellent last season (he was the only City central defender named in the PFA Team of the Year) and Kompany’a leadership, neither fits the mould of Guardiola’s vision for City. Stones and Laporte emphatically do. Just another improvement to the best team in the country. Good luck, everyone else.