16 Conclusions: Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City

Date published: Sunday 15th December 2019 8:08

1) ‘It’s super comfortable at the moment with just over 20 on the clock to go,’ read the tweet from Manchester City’s official account in the 68th minute. It came in the midst of the second of two ten-minute spells without a shot from either team at the Emirates. If anything, it was an understatement.

City will rarely enjoy as straightforward a victory as this. They could afford to give minutes to Benjamin Mendy and Phil Foden, to welcome Oleksandr Zinchenko back and to conserve their energy. Liverpool might justifiably complain that Pep Guardiola’s side were given a Christmas break.

The visitors declared at 3-0, but so too did the hosts. It is an inexact science but Arsenal’s official account published just two tweets in the entire second half: marking the substitutions of Mesut Ozil and Lucas Torreira. Their football and social media teams have at least achieved synergy in surrender.

 

2) City would do well not to read too much into this. A basic take is that defeat to the team in 6th has been bookended by three-goal wins against the sides in 9th and 12th.

With that said, this was something of a return to form. The passing, aside from the first ten minutes, was crisper and with more purpose. There was more symbiosis, signs of the instinctive, machine-like play that characterised their consecutive titles.

Preparation for the Leicester game could not have been more ideal. Win that, and they close the gap to a single point. Talk will still concern a title race that might well have already been run; that should be their domestic target for the foreseeable future.

 

3) The main positive was not necessarily the performance of Foden, but simply that they had another chance to play him against an ostensibly difficult opponent. This was his fourth Premier League start; the previous three came against Cardiff, Leicester and Tottenham.

He fared well, assisting one goal, contributing to another and generally playing to his strengths against a side with no shortage of weaknesses. His display should not – but will – be blown entirely out of proportion by some, yet it was entirely in keeping with Pep Guardiola’s gradual development plan. Sometimes it’s better to take it slow than rush and end up frantically apologising.

 

4) The counter-argument – that he is ready and should be starting games now – was put forward effortlessly by Matteo Guendouzi. A year and a month separates the midfield pair but the Frenchman has been playing in the Premier League since he signed for Arsenal last summer.

Not that you’d know. Guendouzi was positionally unaware, out of his depth and entirely the wrong kind of offensive. His tribute act to Granit Xhaka is exemplary in that he does not offer enough in attack to make up for such defensive deficiencies.

It bears repeating that he is a 20-year-old playing for a club in turmoil. And Torreira did little to assist alongside him. But there is a fine line between fearlessness and crippling naivety; Guendouzi has been diving over it for months.

 

5) It seems an age ago, but for around 70 seconds, Arsenal won the argument. They did not misplace a single one of their three passes, with Gabriel Martinelli creating havoc from a speculative ball over the top, occupying Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho and forcing a save from Ederson.

Arsenal have scored seven goals from set-pieces this season; the subsequent corner produced the opener. City did not give them another touch of the ball after Ozil’s delivery was cleared, moving it across their defence slowly before Fernandinho suddenly switched gears, pushed into midfield and slotted Gabriel Jesus into space. His cross seemed wayward but Kevin De Bruyne soon made it look as pinpoint as his wonderful finish.

City sure have missed Fernandinho’s defensive protection, but this was a fine example of the underrated drive and passing ability which has been equally absent. Arsenal had no response.

 

6) Perhaps that is unfair: there was a response. It was just unthinkably abysmal. Nicolas Pepe let Fernandinho glide past him despite the Brazilian’s heavy touch. Calum Chambers will be busy washing treacle and quicksand off his boots, first failing to cut out the pass, then being mercilessly beaten for pace by Jesus and dumbfounded by a simple drop of the shoulder.

Some blame could also be apportioned to Martinelli, but he is neither a defender nor experienced enough to know to watch De Bruyne’s movement until it is too late. He would certainly be low on any list of culprits.

Sead Kolasinac’s duck under De Bruyne’s shot was the pièce de lack of résistance. The hosts had been the typical neighbour on a local news bulletin: completely oblivious to the clear warning signs until a murder was committed. City had always been so lovely; even as De Bruyne was wiping blood from his hands, Arsenal never expected they could do such a thing.

 

7) The Gunners did not have another shot on target beyond Martinelli’s in the first minute. They mustered just five other efforts of any kind thereafter, ranging from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reminding everyone of his existence by dragging one wide, to Guendouzi having one easily blocked. The former was their last attempt, coming in the 73rd minute.

Arsenal, at home, against a team that had lost to Manchester United and drawn with Newcastle in the last fortnight, created three chances between them in 90 minutes. Watford managed four at the Etihad when City beat them 8-0. A Championship team would be embarrassed at that. Unai Emery, although the decision to sack him was just, might even have winced. Don’t let their defensive ineptitude mask their attacking non-existence.

 

8) Once is a mistake. Twice is a pattern. Raheem Sterling gave the visitors a two-goal lead after a quarter of an hour and it followed a similar story of defensive mishap to the first.

Guendouzi was caught marking space instead of cutting off the passing line to Foden. Ainsley Maitland-Niles stepped up for no reason and was not ahead of the ball once from when De Bruyne received it in his own half to when it nestled in the back of the net. Torreira slid in to no avail, Chambers backed off, Sokratis pressed Jesus, Kolasinac could not decide between covering the subsequent space or keeping an eye on Sterling, and City exploited each and every mistake to double their lead.

Arsenal are really bad.

 

9) The key was Rodri, who turned from interceptor to instigator instantly. He pushed up to anticipate Pepe’s pass then, as City treated the ball like a hot potato on the edge of their own area, bypassed the concentrated press with a simple pass into Foden. It broke the lines and, as it happened, what can loosely be described as Arsenal’s entire defensive structure.

Foden ran with the ball and recycled it to De Bruyne, who quickly played it inside to Jesus. The Brazilian picked out the return pass and De Bruyne drove the ball across to an unmarked Sterling to recapture the magic of the last couple of seasons.

City’s passing beforehand had been haphazard and panicked as they surprisingly struggled to cope with the work of Arsenal’s forwards off the ball. Rodri was the first to maintain his composure and trust his quality. Having been largely ineffective in both defence and attack since he joined, he stamped out one fire and provided the spark for another within seconds.

 

10) By the third goal – were it not already evident minutes or even games before – Freddie Ljungberg’s candidacy for a permanent appointment was exposed. Never mind a defence, a squad or expectations, the man cannot even seem to manage a substitution properly.

It became clear that Kolasinac could no longer continue due to a shattered self-belief soon after a particularly industrious challenge from Rodri, for which the Spaniard was booked. That was in the 35th minute. He came back on after receiving treatment but went down once more in the 37th, requested the physio again and departed in the 39th.

Arsenal therefore theoretically had four minutes to prepare themselves for the inevitable. But Bukayo Saka was not ready, they were thus reduced to ten men, and City ruthlessly targeted the gaping hole at left-back. Foden danced through on that side to create space for De Bruyne who scored, as Arsenal continued to reinvent and redefine incompetence.

 

11) Arsenal’s one saving grace is all too literal. Bernd Leno deserves so much better.

City scored from their first three shots on target but were denied from their next four. His save to deny De Bruyne a hat-trick was spectacular. His stop when Jesus dispossessed Chambers was excellent. His levels of concentration, composure and competence when surrounded by the opposite ought to be commended.

It brings to mind David de Gea’s performances for Manchester United in the 2017/18 season. Then, he kept them in the Champions League places. Now, Leno might be keeping Arsenal out of the Championship.

 

12) The entire nation of China can rest assured that they did not miss much in the second half. This was as close to a Sunday procession as Premier League football comes, interrupted only by Martinelli’s insatiable energy.

De Bruyne, always a refreshing talker, spoke after the game of how City had identified a potential fragility in Arsenal in that their front four do not track back and help in defence, thus allowing the visitors to create numerical advantages and overwhelm the opposition.

He named Martinelli as the exception to that rule, but an 18-year-old new signing can only do so much. He was the closest any player came to being a thorn in City’s side, hassling and harrying their defence, maintaining pressure and using his direct running to pose problems. He completed three tackles – as many as Maitland-Niles, Sokratis and Chambers combined. Arsenal have to cherish him.

 

13) Chambers was once in a similar position of not being tarred with the same brush. He has since decided to rub the entire palette over his body.

There is no finer example of the poison of Arsenal. He improved his reputation in relegation with Fulham last season, being named their Player of the Season after displaying his capabilities at centre-half and in defensive midfield. Upon his return, he started Arsenal’s first game of the season in the 1-0 win over Newcastle, was dropped to the bench for the next four matches, then came on at half-time and 1-0 down against Aston Villa to inspire a 3-2 win from right-back.

The 24-year-old has slowly but surely been consumed by the toxicity in the intervening months, looking less assured, much slower and far more vulnerable with each game. This was the culmination of a gradual decline as he offered no defiance. He is clearly a fine player, but his confidence is completely shot.

 

14) Mahrez was the only City outfielder of 13 not to commit at least one foul. Eight Arsenal players failed to do so. They would not have won or even drawn if Pepe pulled Fernandinho’s shirt for the first goal, if Torreira had taken De Bruyne out before the second or someone – anyone – dared to challenge Foden for the third. But such passivity is alarming. City quelled a handful of promising attacks with a cynical trip or push while Arsenal were pulling out of tackles for fearing of conceding a free-kick on the halfway line.

 

15) De Bruyne was phenomenal. He has been for much of the season, yet City’s struggles have overshadowed his performances. There was little danger of a repeat here.

If he wasn’t stupefying Arsenal players with his every touch, he was doing so without even putting a foot on the ball. To watch him allow Foden’s pass across his body, thus fooling Guendouzi and opening up the space for him to score City’s third, was to watch a predator toying with his prey.

It was sumptuous and sublime: the goals, the assist, the passes, the movement. Even the insouciance in his jogging and running was captivating. You could almost excuse Arsenal for having to stop and watch every time he was on the ball.

16) Arsenal have played this terribly. From trying to replicate the success of other clubs in generating a short-term boost by appointing an iconic former player, to handing him an entire backroom staff comprised of an inexperienced coach moonlighting as assistant while still managing the academy, to leaking interviews as ‘an Apprentice-style grilling’, the process has been dismal.

If their plan was that Ljungberg could carry them through to the end of the season, what was the back-up in case of emergency? How could Raul Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and Edu between them not have foreseen this as a potential scenario? Is that really beyond their remit or capabilities? Was the Emery ‘noise’ so deafening that it drowned out the sheer scale of the problems at the club?

It is, frankly, a pathetic way to run a business, let alone one in such a volatile, ever-changing industry. Such an unforgivable oversight makes this more of a man-made disaster than a natural one – and completely avoidable at that.

Arsenal have won one of five games in the 16-day interim since Emery was sacked, failing to keep a clean sheet. Tottenham appointed Jose Mourinho within 12 hours of parting with Mauricio Pochettino. Their north London rivals are busying themselves drawing up shortlists more than two weeks after taking that particular plunge, and are now four points behind when they were three ahead. This is on-pitch amateurishness compounded by boardroom inadequacy.

Matt Stead

 

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