16 Conclusions: Manchester City 5-0 Arsenal

Date published: Sunday 29th August 2021 4:27 - Matthew Stead

Granit Xhaka embraces Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta came to Arsenal on the back of a Manchester humbling and subsequent August panic. He might well leave the same way after that.


1) The reigning Premier League champions just hosted a team in the relegation zone without a point or a goal and at no stage over the course of 90 languid minutes was that statement even vaguely challenged. It ticked every box: numerous scorers, including one surprise; a petulant red card; a man-of-the-match performance from an overworked keeper; praise from Pep Guardiola for posing no resistance but looking pretty enough. The gallows humour of travelling supporters cheering the opposition’s goals just to feel something was a nice touch.

Post-match analysis often ponders whether the losing team were awful or just made to look so by the victors. This was a reimagining of the genre: Manchester City were fairly ordinary for large parts but seemed imperious and unstoppable against an appalling, inhibited and insipid Arsenal. Norwich genuinely put up more of a fight – and they will fancy their chances in a fortnight at the Emirates.


2) Pep Guardiola might well have just destroyed what he helped create. In an alternate reality, the confirmation earlier this week that the 50-year-old would leave Manchester City upon the expiration of his current contract should have given Mikel Arteta a two-year notice. That must have been part of the plan when he flew his compatriot’s coop to branch out on his own in December 2019: Arteta would hone his craft at Arsenal before the apprentice triumphantly returned to the Etihad as the new master.

You can get better odds on winless Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira or Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the unattached Dutchman who left his last post with Guangzhou in December after finishing 11th in his only Chinese Super League season, to take Guardiola’s throne. Arteta is barely earwigging that conversation, catching odd, disconnected phrases like “trust the process” and “non-negotiables” but missing out the key information.

He backed himself but either chose the wrong horse, the wrong moment or was never truly equipped to ride alone, at least not yet. Arteta once seemed destined to be involved in the discussion as to who will succeed Guardiola; he is failing to even drown out the noise as to who should replace him at Arsenal.


3) That alone has formed part of the argument some have made to keep him. Who could they get to do better? Is an obvious upgrade available and willing to come in instantly? Which manager is out there that will solve their myriad problems and pull Arsenal up before they can drag him down?

Each point is redundant. Arsenal are in turmoil and the blame should be apportioned across numerous stakeholders from pitch to boardroom. But Arteta realises the privilege and precarity of his position. The manager is the unifying face of a club: the focus of praise if things go right and the lightning rod for criticism when they do not.

He cannot make Calum Chambers jump higher or force Granit Xhaka to tackle properly. No coach has that much control over the actions of a player. But he had absolutely no influence on that performance, result or game and that is damning. Arteta might not be the problem at Arsenal but it is patently clear he is no longer the solution.


4) There is mitigation. Arsenal were without their £50m and £23.1m centre-halves, robbed of a £45m midfielder and with their £72m club-record signing sidelined. Talent exists within this squad, if not the capacity to properly hone and focus it.

Then you examine a starting line-up that featured at least three players they have actively tried to offload over the past 12 months, one more whose own replacement was signed this very summer and Sead Kolasinac who I am absolutely certain joined Besiktas on a free in January, and it drives home just how preposterous this club is. A puddle has greater depth and is probably more palatable.

Arsenal went into this afternoon with nothing but the match to lose, so moderate were expectations and so low was the bar. Manchester City were predicted to win and do so heavily. Yet this was chastening, humbling, embarrassing. Those Arsenal fans who stayed to the end to accept apology by the way of applause from the manager and players showed more application than those they feel a duty to support.

Arsenal players


5) The post-mortem will be inconclusive as to whether the cause of death was suicidal defending or blunt force trauma to the head. Manchester City had 25 shots and the law of averages dictates that even they typically can expect to score from a few of them. Yet the first two goals were individual mistakes that set them on a downwards slope to defeat.

A positive enough start for Arsenal was undermined by a simple opener which saw Gabriel Jesus swing in a looping cross from the right for Ilkay Gundogan to head past Bernd Leno. There was no real intricacy or advanced skill – Gundogan’s movement was the most impressive aspect from a Manchester City point of view. But Calum Chambers was positioned poorly and his jump was sub-optimal.

Five minutes later it was 2-0 when a short free-kick was played to Bernardo Silva, whose whipped cross was poor but lazily diverted by Cedric Soares into the path of the unmarked Ferran Torres. Even when he made it 5-0 that was down to Rob Holding’s diabolical focus, awareness and jumping. It did not bear thinking how Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo might have relished this sort of red carpet being rolled out.

These were basic personnel errors stemming from issues in tactics, organisation and communication. Manchester City have never had to work so little for a lead so substantial.


6) A more worrying aspect for Arsenal was their lack of perception and responsibility in defence. Three minutes after Gundogan opened the scoring, he ghosted in at the back post again, this time on the other side, to meet a fine Joao Cancelo cross. Leno saved well on this occasion but Kolasinac was as absent-minded as Chambers in losing Gundogan so easily.

With around 20 minutes remaining it was Raheem Sterling who skulked away from the defence to meet a deep Riyad Mahrez cross and force another solid save from Leno. The failure to identify that as a possible area Manchester City would target was a mistake in preparation. The inability to prevent it a second time straight after was an error in concentration. The fact it was allowed to happen a third time tars the manager, the coaches and the players with the same brush in terms of a dereliction of defensive duty.


7) Arsenal did at least achieve one thing: exposing a formational folly. The common misconception with a back three is that it automatically makes a team more secure and stable, adding another body in defence to reduce the gaps for an opponent to play through and exploit. But the individuals matter. Arteta started Chambers and Kolasinac either side of Holding in the mistaken belief it would make Arsenal harder to break down. It instead complicated their objective as none of the three central defenders looked particularly comfortable, constantly struggling to track players and mark spaces as if one has been playing at right-back, another more regularly in a two and one is a jobbing left-back.

Arteta had two square-shaped holes in his defence with the continued absences of Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes. That elicits some sympathy but trying to force three circular pegs into those gaps invited ridicule and destruction. Three at the back with those individuals played into Manchester City’s hands. If only Arsenal had a £27m centre-half on their books and available.


8) Manchester City were handed the first two goals – although Gundogan and Torres finished well. The biggest compliment that can be paid to Arsenal thereafter is that the champions at least had to earn their next two.

Jack Grealish certainly enjoyed himself, laying on six chances and being fouled on presumably the only three occasions Arsenal got close enough to him. One such moment did not come on the stroke of half-time when he had Chambers in a noticeable panic, bearing down on goal before centering for Jesus to score in an empty net.

The fourth capped a delightful team move as the Arsenal defence was manipulated at will, concluding with Jesus playing in Torres before the Spaniard turned back to lay off Rodri, who curled a wonderful low effort into the corner.

The variation in the goals should please Guardiola most. Manchester City threatened from deep and high or low and driven crosses, proving a threat with intricate passing patterns and a more direct style in search of Torres’s tireless runs. The games will come when they need that battering ram centre-forward as an alternative but the Plan A works far more often than not.

Man City


9) That Jesus goal to make it 3-0 came from something of a rarity on the afternoon as Ederson successfully completed a pass, bypassing two lines of an Arsenal press to find Torres in the centre circle. The Spaniard carried the ball 20 or so yards and Manchester City were further ahead seconds later.

But Ederson’s distribution was otherwise poor. Just one of his six long balls found their target and on one occasion he was too slow in releasing the pass with Emile Smith Rowe’s block almost trickling from post to post. That was Arsenal’s best chance and it wasn’t even a shot.

The sight of the Brazilian strolling out of his area after about 20 minutes in search of a teammate as no Arsenal player dared or bothered come within ten yards was striking. By the time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was substituted on the hour mark, he had as many touches overall as Ederson had managed outside his area (15). The Manchester City keeper took more risks because he was allowed to. It paid off for the third goal in particular.


10) Kyle Walker was the only Manchester City outfielder not to have either a shot or create a chance. He was substituted at half-time; correlation may not imply causation. Tierney got behind him once and he did look a little sloppy. But it did highlight the baffling depth of quality and disparity in this squad. Guardiola initially set up to counter any possible threat from Smith Rowe and Tierney on the right but once it became apparent there was no such danger, he introduced Oleksandr Zinchenko as someone more comfortable in possession and able to drift inside when necessary.

His next two changes, bringing on Sterling and Mahrez, were designed only to inflict more damage and share the playing opportunities in a squad bustling with options. Given half an hour each, the former had four shots and the latter set up three chances.

There is no discernible drop-off. In an unrelated point, Arsenal brought on Mohamed Elneny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.


11) Manchester City’s two best players had their fewest touches, Sterling (31) aside. Torres (35) was brilliant in the striker role, showing a clinical touch but also linking the play brilliantly, dropping deep when needed and generally tormenting the centre-halves with his movement and pace. Silva (31) was understated but exceptional in a more reserved midfield role.

He is an incredibly underrated player, one whose future has been called into question as a possible pawn in some ambitious part-exchanges this summer. That might yet have been his last game but he deserves more than to be a footnote in another player’s transfer. This was yet more proof of his worth and versatility, helping maintain Manchester City’s shape and structure and progressing the ball better than anyone with either his passing or dribbling. He was crucial to the first goal, important for the second and absolutely key if Manchester City wish to retain the title; if they can keep their most unique player, they absolutely should.


12) Aymeric Laporte was also faultless, albeit in the face of scant pressure. Manchester City have kept a clean sheet in five of his last six Premier League games and Guardiola has created a healthy competition he must now honour and foster. John Stones waited patiently for his chance and took it. He should not expect to take his place back from Laporte in this form so easily.

Aymeric Laporte wins a header


13) The reincarnation of Jesus as an ultra effective wide forward in the Premier League has been wonderful. It is a role he has reprised regularly for Brazil but the mischaracterisation of him as some sort of understudy to Sergio Aguero harmed his reputation. Few can hope to match such unerring and dependable brilliance in front of goal, not least someone whose skill set is better suited elsewhere.

From the right, Jesus has been wreaking havoc. Smith Rowe, Tierney and Kolasinac should provide ample protection as a three but none proved useful in repelling the Brazilian, whose goal and assist was just reward. The transfer window will shut without Guardiola having a centre-forward bestowed upon him but a title-winning attack has been upgraded with the addition of Grealish and the emergence of Jesus.


14) The Xhaka red card completed the set for Arsenal, his two-footed tackle on Cancelo showing about as much control as he had exerted on the midfield in the half an hour beforehand. The protestations were timid and his and the club’s fate for the afternoon was settled.

It emphasised the difference in how some people perceive leadership. Xhaka might have felt that tackle was a statement that Arsenal should not be taken lightly, that they were losing the game but were ready to continue the physical battle. Yet he shirked responsibility more than anyone with an awful tackle when Arsenal needed him most. If that was the first such offence of his time at the club he could be forgiven. It is difficult to remember how many times he has let them down in that manner.

In that moment, Arsenal had lost their shape and order as a team and a former captain they had attempted to sell all summer relieved himself of his discipline as an individual. Once that begins to happen it is never long until the manager pays. If Xhaka returns to the team at the next available opportunity then he deserves to.


15) Arsene Wenger is a genius.


16) August 28, 2011: Arsenal suffer their heaviest Premier League defeat in an 8-2 loss to Manchester United. Arsene Wenger reacts by signing Yossi Benayoun, Park Chu-young, Andre Santos, Per Mertesacker and some Spanish bloke with remarkable hair.

August 28, 2021: Arsenal suffer their fourth-heaviest Premier League defeat in a 5-0 loss to Manchester City. Arteta might leave the Emirates in the same Manchester-induced August panic as he arrived.

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