* As the last manager to engineer a victory over Manchester City, many might have hoped/feared that Arsene Wenger had a trick up his sleeve. He has faced Pep Guardiola three times since the Spaniard arrived in England, winning, drawing and losing one game each. Few sides give City as close a game as Arsenal.
That much proved true for periods of Sunday’s meeting, but that will never be enough against a side so confident, dominant and ever-improving. Arsenal were impressive for the opening 15 minutes and for sections of the second half, but derailing City would require a perfect performance right now.
Even momentary lapses in concentration are punished when made against Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, and so it proved here. Each goal from the home side was a result of the hosts capitalising on an individual mistake with ruthless efficiency.
This was not necessarily a game that proved Arsenal are not good enough, just that City are too good. The title can never be won in November, but it already seems quite weird that there is a possibility they will not be crowned come May.
* Wenger emphasised the need for “balance” before the game, and so his decision to start Francis Coquelin at the heart of his defence was entirely contradictory. That the Frenchman was substituted after 56 minutes suggests that even the professor accepts this experiment backfired.
The idea of playing a central midfielder in central defence is not alien, nor is it wrong. Eric Dier transitions smoothly between the two roles for Tottenham, and Arsenal have used it to varying effect in the Europa League this season. But that has only ever been with Mohamed Elneny, an accomplished passer. Coquelin is no such thing.
The 26-year-old recorded the lowest passing accuracy of any starter, including goalkeepers (65.2%), meaning that Arsenal were often unable to alleviate pressure by playing out from the back, and surrendered possession straight back to City. The best centre-halves spread calm throughout the team, but Coquelin’s presence had the opposite effect. Arsenal often looked panicked when forced into making decisions in their own half.
Giving Coquelin his first Premier League start since May 13 in a game of such difficulty and importance was a risk; making him centre-half lost them the game.
* As if to highlight the gulf between the two sides, they both made two changes: Kyle Walker and David Silva came in for the hosts, while Coquelin and Alex Iwobi were drafted in by the visitors. One side replaced their Ferraris with Lamborghinis, while the other checked the times for public transport. Being a Sunday, they were unreliable.
It is not as though Arsenal did not have other options. Just as he was against Liverpool in August, Alexandre Lacazette was left on the bench in a big game. This decision was not quite as cataclysmic, but the absence of a central striker was telling. Lacazette will feel that he made his point with a goal nine minutes after coming on.
Wenger has been careful with Lacazette ever since he arrived as the club’s record signing. The Frenchman is far from a guaranteed starter – six Arsenal players have more minutes in the Premier League this season. But it is November, and the manager must show more trust to a player he courted for years.
Benching Lacazette away in big games at Liverpool and City tells you Wenger never really wanted him.
Signed him to shut everyone up.
— Mr FishFinger (@BlockNinety8) November 5, 2017
“Giroud, Lacazette – it’s a never-ending debate. I think both of them are very good players,” Wenger said in October. “For me there’s no difference, and each time it’s very hard to decide who starts.” This was proof, were it required, that at least one of them should.
* Yet Arsenal started the brighter, winning a couple of corners and putting City on the back foot in the early stages. The pre-game narrative was that Arsenal would have to absorb pressure then rely on counter-attacks, and a front three of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Iwobi suggested that was the plan. But the first real chance of the game came from City breaking with speed from an Arsenal corner. Raheem Sterling played in De Bruyne who laid the ball onto Aguero, but the Argentinean’s shot was high and wide.
It was a precursor to how much of the game unfolded, as City flooded forward with numbers after winning possession in their own half on a number of occasions. Laurent Koscielny was left in two-versus-one situations twice, with only poor passes preventing City from capitalising each time.
Conversely, Arsenal only created one real chance on the counter-attack, as City relied on tactical fouling to suppress any potential uprising. Be it through a lack of nous or simply an inability to maintain the pace, Arsenal failed to break up play with the same snide fouls.
* Wenger’s choice to deploy a back five was not necessarily the wrong one, but the personnel absolutely was. The Gunners had three shots in the opening ten minutes as they held their own against the league leaders, but City eventually found their feet. After Aguero’s early shot, their first real chance came when Coquelin’s misplaced pass eventually found its way to Leroy Sane, whose delivery was perfect but Sterling was, as his genes dictate, a little short.
Seven minutes later came a pair of mistakes, Sead Kolasinac and Iwobi both passing to blue shirts in their own half, and this time City capitalised. After Petr Cech saved his initial effort, De Bruyne combined with Fernandinho to fire across the keeper and into the bottom corner.
Arsenal’s approach was fine, but a game against this calibre of opposition demands no mistakes, or at least very few. In the first half alone, Kolasinac, Iwobi, Coquelin and Granit Xhaka all handed possession over to City, who created a goalscoring opportunity each time. On this occasion, they took it.
* The goal bore similarities to De Bruyne’s strike against Chelsea, the Belgian trading a one-two with a teammate before placing the ball beyond a despairing keeper with surprising power. Thibaut Courtois and Cech are not easy opponents to beat from range or angle, but then De Bruyne is developing a habit for making the extraordinary seem anything but.
“We are not allowed to do back heels, so it is always good, simple passes,” De Bruyne told Sky Sports ahead of the game, and it is a salient point. Other players would have tried a convoluted flick to try and create an opening when 25 to 20 yards out, but by keeping it “simple”, the opportunity presented itself. With the help of Fernandinho, he provided the foundations for an impressive victory.
* Speaking of convoluted flicks, how many moves broke down at the feet of Aaron Ramsey? No Arsenal player was particularly efficient in possession at the Etihad Stadium – substitute Jack Wilshere recorded the highest pass-completion percentage (90.9%) – but there are few more frustrating footballers than the Welshman.
His display was not helped by Sanchez, with the pair continuing their bizarre on-pitch feud which involves constantly refusing to pass to one another when in acres of space, but Ramsey was far from blameless. The 26-year-old often comes across as trying to be too clever when, as De Bruyne for example has realised, the “simple pass” is sometimes eminently more effective. Against a team that cherishes the ball, his shortcomings were evident.
* Arsenal were struggling to cope with the pressure at times, yet the scoreline stayed at 1-0. Coquelin, Xhaka and Sanchez were all guilty of sloppiness in possession, and the result was a disjointed performance throughout the defence, midfield and attack.
Were Arsenal half as precise as City with their passing in the attacking third, it might have been 1-1 at half-time. If they were a tenth as meticulous with their passing in defence, it might have been 0-0. They created more chances for City through their own passing than they did with their own.
Wenger, as he often does, was keen to point the finger of blame at the officials (maybe he read this at half-time). The penalty Nacho Monreal conceded on Sterling was soft, and City’s third goal was indeed offside. But that rather misses the point that this Arsenal side were once again the architects of their own downfall. Playing against City is a tightrope, and the Gunners were wearing the wrong shoes.
* And yet they almost went into half-time on level terms. On the one occasion they initiated a successful counter-attack, it was a raking ball launched over the halfway line by Iwobi for Sanchez to chase. He duly did, and then played in Ramsey down the left. The Welshman cut onto his right foot before trying to sneak in a low, powerful shot at the near post. Only a smart save from Ederson maintained City’s lead.
The Brazilian endured a moment of uncertainty in the second half after dropping an Iwobi shot, but even then maintained the sort of calm which, as aforementioned, spreads to the rest of the team. That was as evident in his ball retention as it was his shot-stopping, and he completed just two fewer passes than Sanchez. His was the most straightforward signing of the summer, a young goalkeeper tailor-made for Guardiola’s system. But that does not make it any less important or impressive.
* A key reason that Ederson prospered was Arsenal’s fragmented pressing. The defining aspect of their draw with Chelsea in September was that each player had a clear objective, a clear opponent and they pressed relentlessly and in numbers. It was the opposite on Sunday, as Sanchez’s attempts to cut off the lines back to the goalkeeper were thwarted by Iwobi and Ozil not pressing in unison.
One of the key things to note in the final third was Arsenal's disjointed press allowing City to play out from the back through Ederson pic.twitter.com/9puM9ooRSz
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) November 5, 2017
On only two occasions was Ederson forced to play the ball straight into the opposition half, whereas 11 of Cech’s 23 passes were into City’s half. Arsenal do not place as much emphasis on building from the back as City, but then that begs the question as to why Coquelin, a central midfielder, started in central defence.
* Sanchez may have constantly pressed Ederson, but he did little else of note. If this was his audition to get into the Manchester City side, he forgot his lines and then tripped and fell head first down the stairs.
Wenger insisted last week that he was “not suspicious” of playing the Chilean against City despite the events of this summer, and perhaps he was right. Sanchez certainly did not try any less, but that is even more cause for concern. This is the malaise that many predicted when the manager decided to keep a player who had his heart set on moving.
The 28-year-old has now scored one goal and assisted two in eight Premier League games, and is cutting a more frustrated figure than a university student’s bank account. He lost possession 21 times and won it back just twice.
Watching City express their dominance over Arsenal when not even in full flow, it is difficult to see where Sanchez, a player capable of indescribable brilliance but prone to giving the ball away far too frequently, slots in.
* Arsenal ended the half in the ascendancy but against City, that often leaves a side exposed. Within five minutes of the restart, their lead was doubled.
Wenger described the decision to award Sterling a penalty when played through by Fernandinho as “unacceptable”, but the faux outrage is difficult to take. Tangling with Monreal as he raced through on goal, it was impossible to envisage any other scenario for the referee, who had to make the call in real-time.
For Sterling, it was vindication for his perseverance. His gilt-edged opportunity in the first half was snatched away by Kolasinac’s push, while his pass to Sane on a blistering counter-attack in the first half was woeful. In previous seasons, the England international would have wilted, allowing the mistakes to play on his mind. But this is a more ruthless, rounded and determined Sterling, with Aguero converting from the spot.
It should also be noted that Sterling won possession more times than any other player on the pitch (11). This is a player transformed under Guardiola.
* On the dawn of the game, Guardiola reserved special praise for one player in particular.
“I think Fernandinho, right now, is one of the three best holding midfielders in the world,” he said. “He gives us a lot, with the ball and without the ball, in terms of many things we need to compete.”
After his cameos at right and left-back last season, the 32-year-old has slotted seamlessly back into central midfield. This was not his finest display, and yet he won more tackles (6) and made more clearances (5) than any other player on the pitch. He is the safety net behind a fearsome attack.
* Guardiola summarised the game in a way only he can. “The penalty was a penalty, the offside was offside but we won because we were better.” Football can often be seen as a complicated game, but there is a beautiful simplicity for those who seek it.
Arsenal can choose to feel aggrieved if they so wish. The offside goal, scored by substitute Gabriel Jesus after being played in by Silva from the right, cruelly ended the Gunners’ valiant resistance after Lacazette’s strike. But this was a particular dose of justice following Kolasinac’s first-half shove on Sterling, and questions ought to be asked of Hector Bellerin and Xhaka, who stood painfully still and appealed to the linesman instead of looking to rectify the situation themselves.
It is remarkably rare over the years that a manager is justified in using supposed mistakes by others to mask either his own or those of his players. Wenger was no different here, and Arsenal deserved to lose even if there were points of contention in defeat. They are criminals, even if they were convicted of an offence they did not commit.
* “I want to use both systems when it suits the team or when we need to do it,” said Wenger in September. “Because we played for a long time in a back four, it is easy for me to switch from a back three to a back four.”
The Frenchman might consider it a simple tactical tweak, but Arsenal have not started with a back four since the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in April. This is now a run of 27 games with the same formation, despite claims that their system is fluid and interchangeable.
When you deem Coquelin your only legitimate solution at centre-half due to injuries, then s formational switch is in order; if you do not have three centre-halves, don’t use a formation that requires them.
When the line-up was announced it seemed as though Arsenal would play with four at the back and Coquelin in a midfield three, and the irony is that they would surely have fared better. Instead, the insistence that the system is more important than the players was a critical oversight.
It took 20 years to persuade Wenger that playing three central defenders was a viable system. That he is now so reliant on a formation he resisted using for two decades is worrying.
* Talk of emulating the Invincibles is as tiresome as it is pointless in early November, but City will cope with that conversation point. They have now gone 23 games unbeaten in all competitions since April, and boast an eight-point gap at the top as we head into another international break. Every other team has lost at least twice.
Consider too that all manner of opposition has been dispatched. Arsenal, Napoli, West Brom, Burnley, Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk and Liverpool have all stepped up to the plate, but none have had the answer to a Swiss Army knife of a club who are finding new ways to overcome different teams every week. Whatever their destiny come May, it is a pleasure to watch them in full flow.
Football365 has been nominated for a Football Supporters’ Federation award. We’d really appreciate if you went here and voted for us in the fourth category