* This is the end. If the common belief was that such meek surrender in the Carabao Cup final was Arsenal’s nadir, it took them just four more days to reach a new low. The Gunners hit rock bottom at Wembley, and duly started to excavate at the Emirates.
Arsene Wenger spoke of the club’s “desire to respond” on Thursday evening, and they did so briefly before Manchester City grew tired of listening and interjected. Arsenal displayed their desperation for revenge in the opening 15 minutes, yet they found themselves 3-0 down after half an hour. They were the belligerent boxer who came out fighting, failed to land a telling punch and was left sprawled out on the canvas, all within the first round.
The talk of an end-of-season review will only intensify, but for the first time it genuinely feels as though Wenger could leave before the summer. His own arrogance and misplaced faith will surely prevent him from walking the plank, while Arsenal’s reluctance to ignominiously sack their greatest ever manager mid-season will likely stop them giving him the necessary push. Yet both need to be put out of their misery as soon as possible, as neither can thrive while the other barely survives.
* Were it not for the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last April, the 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich or any one of the long list of similar recent embarrassments, this would feel like a watershed moment for Wenger. His complete lack of proaction or reaction on the touchline as goals one, two and three went in; his long delay in emerging for the post-match interview; the procession of a second half as players ambled towards the sweet relief of the final whistle: it all combined to create what felt like a final depressing chapter.
Jamie Carragher noted that the atmosphere could turn “toxic” if Arsenal conceded an early goal, yet when they fell behind in the 15th minute, the reaction was one of indifference and acceptance. There is an endless list of managers who will attest that apathy is far more damaging than anger. By the summer, Wenger will surely have joined them.
* Of course, for every dumpster fire, there must be a culprit strolling away with matches in one hand and a petrol can in the other. As miserable as Arsenal were, City were absolutely magnificent.
The dust had barely settled on their League Cup success before Vincent Kompany consigned it to the past and looked to the present. “We beat Liverpool in the League Cup final, and then three days later, we went to Anfield and got absolutely peppered,” said the centre-half, referring to their 3-0 defeat to the Reds in March 2016. The Belgian was eager to stop history repeating itself.
It never seemed likely. Arsenal started well with Aaron Ramsey creating early defensive confusion with a driven cross before Henrikh Mkhitaryan forced a comfortable early save from Ederson. Yet this was more City taking time to find their umbrella for light drizzle as opposed to weathering the storm.
The combinations down the left-hand side were electric, with Danilo feeding an irresistible Leroy Sane. The blend down the right was smooth, with Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva linking wonderfully. Their passes were crisp and incisive, their moves flowing, their interchanges unstoppable. Their dominance was evident.
Without their first-choice central midfielder in Fernandinho, their first-choice centre-half in John Stones, their first-choice left-back in Benjamin Mendy, and their first-choice winger in Raheem Sterling, City decimated a supposed rival.
* More should be made of City’s absentees, or rather those who replaced them. Kompany was back to his best alongside Nicolas Otamendi, Danilo was useful once again at left-back, and Bernardo Silva enjoyed one of his better games in a City shirt.
As for Ilkay Gundogan, he continues to excel in the place of Fernandinho, whose importance to this side cannot be understated. With Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva offered slightly more freedom, the third member of that triptych must be more reserved and diligent. Fernandinho is the perfect jigsaw piece in that respect, and yet you would be mistaken for assuming that position had been created for Gundogan from the beginning.
>Won't get a mention but Gundogan had been superb filling in for Fernandinho…
— Rodney Marsh (@RodneyMarsh10) March 1, 2018
* From dribbling past four men and assisting Bernardo Silva’s opener, to bamboozling two more defenders and helping create David Silva’s sumptuous strike, to capping a wonderful performance off with a goal of his own, Sane was Arsenal’s chief tormentor. Shkodran Mustafi and Hector Bellerin have never looked more inferior.
On the day it emerged that Pep Guardiola ‘tore into’ the winger in a ‘furious’ dressing-room dressing down against Wigan last month, Sane proved that lessons had already been learned. He scored from his only shot, assisted from his only key pass, and completed six dribbles; Arsenal managed nine in total.
Only two players have scored eight or more goals and provided eight or more assists in the Premier League this season. To share that stage with Mohamed Salah illustrates Sane’s own brilliance.
* Of the quartet that Sane danced past to set up the first goal, Bellerin forced him away from goal, Danny Welbeck failed to dispossess him but cut off his supply line to David Silva, and Mustafi, not for the first time this week, was far too slow to react to the impending danger. But Granit Xhaka’s contribution was the most laughable.
The midfielder raced back, dangled a leg, failed to make contact with either player or ball, and ended up in a heap on the floor. He arrived on the scene of a minor collision and proceeded to drive straight into the wall. Fittingly, this was the latest in a long line of car-crash performances.
* Gary Neville’s description of Arsenal as “spineless” and “pathetic” on Sunday was eye-catching, and his berating of Xhaka, Ramsey and Mesut Ozil for walking was eye-opening. But he offered a more measured, considered and pertinent view after the game.
“I’m always surprised to see Ramsey and Xhaka in central midfield,” he told the Gary Neville Podcast. “I just always am. I just don’t think it’s a central midfield pairing. There’s been too much evidence of it, particularly when you’re playing against a team that are very good in midfield and you want to try and stop them and run off them.”
If it is a surprise to see Xhaka ever partner Ramsey in central midfield, it was unfathomable to imagine they would do so on Thursday, less than a week after being humbled by this same opponent. They have now started as a central midfield pairing 21 times in the Premier League since the former’s arrival in summer 2016. In 13 games against clubs outside the current top six, they have won 11 and lost just one. But in eight games against clubs in the top six, they have won just twice and lost five. Their complete lack of defensive wherewithal can be masked against weaker teams, but is ruthlessly exposed against the best. And yet Wenger will continue to pick them in such games.
* Four minutes after City broke the deadlock, Arsenal threatened to reply. A quick counter-attacking move was spearheaded by Danny Welbeck, who knocked the ball towards the edge of the City penalty area and past Otamendi. The Argentinean ensured to place himself directly in the way, slamming the open door and readily accepting the yellow card.
It is a key staple of Guardiola’s style, and one Jose Mourinho ensured to highlight in December. The tactical foul was perfectly executed, stopping Arsenal in their tracks, halting their momentum and allowing City to recover and regroup. The Gunners desperately needed a similar intervention in the build-up to the first goal, but lacked the nous to carry it out.
* The first two goals, while not identical, were similar in their approach. Danilo passes to Sane on the left-hand side, Sane occupies at least two defenders before finding the perfect pass, and a delightful move is completed with a Silva lining.
On this occasion it was David, the Spaniard cushioning Sergio Aguero’s selfless lay-off with one touch before firing into the roof of the net with another. It was sublime football.
By the end of the game, Gabriel Jesus made his first appearance since New Year’s Eve as a late substitute, but he faces a battle to reclaim his starting spot. Aguero has now scored nine goals and assisted two in his last seven games; that is not the sort of form that can be easily dismissed.
* Five minutes later, the Argentinean led an assault down the right-hand side before playing in Kevin de Bruyne, who laid the ball on for Walker to assist Sane’s deserved goal. Arsenal had been sliced open yet again.
“Obviously we are looking to improve but I think it is important that referees look at themselves and try to improve,” said Mustafi in midweek. “As I said before, we have to look at ourselves and try to improve but I think that they have to do the same.”
If Neville thought it was “pathetic defending” from the centre-half on Sunday, this was somehow even worse. Frustratingly for Mustafi, there were no debatable refereeing decisions to hide behind this time, just the continued deterioration of a defender who can seemingly no longer defend.
Seriously who's idea was it to spend £70m on Xhaka & Mustafi?
— Gurjit (@GurjitAFC) March 1, 2018
* His defensive partner should not and cannot escape criticism. This has been a season of sharp decline for Laurent Koscielny, the Arsenal captain sinking with his ship.
The 32-year-old was described by Romelu Lukaku as his toughest opponent last April. “I’ve been here since 2011 and every time I play against him, my hardest games are against him, because he is so clever,” said the Manchester United striker. It has been a long and revealing 11 months. Arsenal must replace him in the summer.
* At the other end of that particular scale, Kompany continues to take tentative steps in his latest journey to recovery. Two full matches in the space of four days is quite the accomplishment for a player with 41 separate spells out through injury.
The Belgian referred to this as City’s “hardest game of the season”. While that seems a laughable suggestion in hindsight after he nullified Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a second straight game, it is that sort of attitude Guardiola will cherish. His angry first-half reaction to City allowing Arsenal to force a corner from a blocked shot was one of a defender who never allows his standards to slip. So long as that is the case, he has a future under Guardiola.
* Arsenal ended the game with more shots (10 to 9) and as many on target (5 each) as City, yet not even when Otamendi conceded a penalty for a foul on Mkhitaryan did it seem possible the hosts could even salvage a consolation goal.
After treating the Emirates Stadium to the complete attacking performance in the first half, City decided to use the second half as a defensive drill, offering Arsenal the ball and asking what they could do with it. It was the ultimate taunt, and Guardiola spoke of “control” after the game for a reason. City chose when to attack and when to defend, when to be passive and when to be aggressive. They dictated the tempo, while the game just seemed to happen to the hosts. City were the directors, and Arsenal the lowly stagehands.
* In keeping out Aubameyang’s spot kick, Ederson has now done something Petr Cech has never been able to at the Emirates Stadium: save a penalty.
To praise the City keeper is a calculated risk, for any attempt to recognise his excellence is taken by some as an affront to the talents of David de Gea. But one can appreciate just how important both are to their respective teams, and while De Gea rescues Manchester United on a consistent basis, Ederson is proving himself as accomplished with his hands as we already knew he was with his feet. He has been an inspired signing.
* City, 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, play three games in the next 11 days. They made three substitutions, starting with Oleksandr Zinchenko replacing the excellent Kyle Walker in the 72nd minute.
Arsenal, ten points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, play four games in the next 14 days. They made no substitutions. Perhaps Wenger chose not to taint any more players than necessary with this defeat; is it possible he simply felt it was a pointless cause to send more troops into a lost battle?
Or maybe he examined his options: David Ospina, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Eddie Nketiah. Arsenal only have four injuries – the same amount as City. That is an alarming lack of squad depth.
The first time in over 21 years (November 1996) that Arsenal have lost a league game without making a substitution. Meek acceptance.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) March 1, 2018
* The most damning aspect is that Arsenal tried their absolute best, and yet were still held at arm’s length throughout. Their start suggested that they had moved up a few gears from their Sunday showing, but they could only wave as City coasted by and overtook them with ease.
City are now on 75 points with ten games remaining; Arsenal are on 45. The leaders could end their season now and Arsenal would still have to win all of their matches to draw level on points; they would still surely finish behind them on goal difference.
Arsenal are as close to Burnley – who have not won since December 12 – as they are to Chelsea in terms of points, and can no longer consider themselves on a level plain with any of the teams above them in the table. For as long as Wenger remains, the ‘big six’ will be a ‘big five’. This only confirmed Arsenal’s relegation from that top league.