16 Conclusions on Man City 0-0 Arsenal: Rodri, Rice, ‘League Two’ Haaland, Liverpool and Pulis the big winners

Matt Stead
Manchester City player Kevin De Bruyne, Arsenal midfielder Declan Rice, and Gabriel Jesus and Erling Haaland
A decent result for everyone, but mainly Liverpool

If defences win you titles then Manchester City and Arsenal proved why they are contenders. But the Gunners or ‘League Two’ Erling Haaland could have won it.


1) Jorge Valdano must have thought his battle was over. He was left in such disgust at Liverpool and Chelsea’s rudimentary and repetitive clashes in the mid-2000s that he raged against Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez for their crimes against skill, improvisation and individual thought.

He felt their ‘desire to have everything under control’ was due to the fact that neither ‘made it as a player’, that they epitomised a general slant towards ‘very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct’ games, especially at the highest level.

With both sacked this season and their stocks perhaps never lower, the romantic former Real Madrid manager could rest easy. Yet along come Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, two excellent players who have made, albeit at completely different points in their career, wonderful  and innovative coaches. And who together can produce something ‘very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct’, but which only a mother and the most ardent of out-of-possession obsessives could love.

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2) The world is contractually obliged to describe the game as ‘tactically absorbing’ and a chess match. And there were certainly elements of enjoyment to discern from almost 100 minutes of two phenomenal teams being a little too aware – at least from a neutral vantage point – of the importance of not losing.

But equally the best part of the game was that 20-second period after about 70 minutes when neither team could keep the ball for more than a touch or two. Jeremy Doku losing it but tracking back to dispossess Kai Havertz; Bernardo Silva turning into the brick wall of William Saliba, only for Rodri to steal in and regain it because of a misunderstanding with Bukayo Saka; Saliba cleanly tackling him in the area too to prevent another charge. A mass of bodies and limbs in and on the edge of the area, briefly forgetting the meticulous schemes and strategies set for them to prioritise control and instead indulging in some kick-and-chase playground nonsense.

That whole passage of play not producing even the hint of a single shot neatly summed up how Liverpool are chaotically fighting for the Premier League title – and currently winning – essentially against two sides of a very risk-averse similar coin.

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Man City vs Arsenal: Erling Haaland's shot is blocked by William Saliba.
Erling Haaland’s shot is blocked by William Saliba.


3) It also epitomised the ludicrous defensive organisation which underpinned Arsenal’s resistance. Saliba was excellent and Gabriel Magalhaes arguably even better as aerial onslaughts and ground attacks were neutralised ruthlessly. Their composure and concentration levels were exemplary and neither made a single poor decision, save for a couple of erroneous moments from Saliba in possession early on.

So many aspects of this Arsenal rise to becoming a truly elite side have not been properly appreciated; perhaps the most impressive and overlooked point is how they have put together the world’s finest and most rounded centre-half partnership, with composite parts in their mid-20s and signed for £27m each. They, much like their team, will only get better. They, much like their team, are already brilliant.


4) But that is a great result for Manchester City. The line of thinking that it was must-win for Arsenal always felt manufactured – they should be similarly happy with their point – and any suggestion that home advantage had to be converted into victory by Guardiola’s side was nonsense.

A side already shorn of their starting keeper and important defenders in John Stones and Kyle Walker lost Nathan Ake to injury inside half an hour, forcing another shift in shape and personnel. They nevertheless restricted Arsenal to two proper chances and were in turn limited to perhaps one.

In those circumstances, holding a sensational team on a daunting winning run represents a positive. The key for both sides was to keep Liverpool within touching distance and at worse retain a gap which can be closed in the space of a single game. The title was never going to be won at the Etihad on March 31, but defeat for either would have rendered it lost.


5) That best Manchester City chance falling to Ake tells a story of how they struggled to convert any and all territorial dominance into actual opportunities after his substitution. Even then, the Dutchman’s chance came from a corner; Arsenal almost entirely nullified them in open play.

Guardiola introducing his unenforced substitutions uncharacteristically early felt pertinent. Jeremy Doku and Jack Grealish replaced Phil Foden and Mateo Kovacic as the focus switched to isolating the full-backs and encouraging more one-on-one situations. But they could not dribble their way through either. Actually, that’s unfair. Doku absolutely could, he just then made some atrocious final choices thereafter.

With neither Kevin de Bruyne nor Erling Haaland able to separate themselves from the system and produce game-changing magic, Manchester City had no way through. It perhaps sounds like an exaggeration but in an attacking sense they looked ordinary.

De Bruyne’s injury struggles is partial mitigation for the form of both but Haaland failing to score in half his Premier League appearances this season seems preposterous. The “almost like a League Two player” line from Roy Keane was daft but that air-shot from Josko Gvardiol’s corner flick in the second half captured the essence of someone whose sublime-ridiculous ratio has become uncomfortably even this season.


6) Guardiola will be relieved that one of his match-defining cheat code cogs continues to whir away, machine-like as ever. Rodri oversaw a rest defence masterclass, even if his teammates could not capitalise upon his relentless excellence.

The unbeaten record is an eye-catching headline statistic but his impact should not be condensed into mere numbers. Rodri’s ability to take up the best possible positions off the ball is ridiculous and for a time in the first half he practically alone pinned Arsenal in. It was invariably the Spaniard dragging them back in each time they tried to escape, and at the heart of every move City tried to patiently build.


7) With that said, Declan Rice’s stunning clean slide tackle on Rodri in the first half was a statement: this would not be a one-sided midfield battle. The Arsenal general held his own against the team that coveted him so in the summer.

That moment launched an Arsenal counter as Martin Odegaard tried to slide Kai Havertz in, yet the Gunners were possessed by a similar inability to execute the final ball properly. Rice would probably have preferred to contribute more in attack but his preventative presence was needed and almost never wavered.

He has elevated this team quite brilliantly; those comparisons to the transformative effect Alisson and Virgil van Dijk had on Liverpool already feel earned. Manchester City must be regretting not putting in the groundwork Arteta did.


8) Rodri did obviously commit the most fouls of any Manchester City player, one ahead of a rather frustrated De Bruyne. But it was great fun to see Arsenal turn one of Guardiola’s gimmicks against him.

Their first-half tactical fouling was a particular sight to behold. About half of their eight fouls before half-time were arguably worthy of a booking but they were shared between six players, with a further three receiving a stern word from Anthony Taylor after the break.

The two yellow cards Arsenal did receive were against Jesus after some multi-ball nonsense and David Raya for timewasting. And the irony of Manchester City players growing increasingly furious with the situation was not lost.


9) The slickest move either team put together throughout the whole game came on the half-hour mark, after possibly the most concerted period of Manchester City possession. Between the 17th and 27th minutes the hosts had more than 85% of the ball and Arsenal had seven touches in the opposition half. Then suddenly they played out with precision and purpose to almost lead through Jesus.

It was delightful combination play with Ben White at the epicentre, bringing in Saka, Jesus and Kiwior before Jesus curled an effort just wide after a couple of shimmies. White’s back-post crossing was key early on, producing another chance which Jesus put wide. Manchester City, for all their time on the ball, never came closer beyond that Ake header from the corner.


10) It could even be argued that Manchester City were a better creative force for Arsenal than themselves. There were some bizarrely careless moments from the hosts in their own defensive third, with Odegaard pouncing on one poor Kovacic pass, Gvardiol turning the ball over to Saka before eventually regaining it, and Manuel Akanji conceding a corner with a header under little pressure.

Straight at the start of the second half, Stefan Ortega gave the ball away and that seemed to trigger something in Arsenal, who perhaps sensed a little complacency. They went on the front foot and penned Manchester City in for a period with an aggressive high press, typified by Saka making three of his match-leading four tackles between the 50th and 56th minutes. The champions looked vulnerable. They were made to.


11) If there was a time for Arsenal to take the lead it was then. One of those many tackles saw White take the ball off Gvardiol and immediately feed Saliba, whose quick ball into Odegaard was slid into the path of Saka. The ball across the face of goal was perfect but Jesus could not quite reach it.

It seemed like one of those Arsenal Need A Proper Centre-Forward moments and the point probably does still stand, but the replay showing Akanji give the Brazilian a slight nudge just before the delivery, temporarily diverting his path, suggested an element of fine defending was at play too.


12) Ortega did actually do really well, that one particular poor pass aside. The one fairly deep corner he claimed under pressure in the first half was a substantial statement considering Arsenal’s set-piece strength. It is not at all often the Gunners look more threatening in open play rather than dead-ball situations but Ortega exuded calm and solidity.


13) That spin from Rico Lewis to evade the tireless Havertz was truly sublime. Him continuing his run into the area and throwing a mild strop as Foden played it backwards for Rodri to work a long-range shooting chance for Kovacic was also lovely and at least partially helped explain how this game ended goalless.


14) It could have turned completely on two moments in the closing stages: that Haaland miscue from the corner; and a Leandro Trossard counter a couple of minutes later.

Haaland should have done better but his was a mistake in terms of coordination. And Raya would likely have saved any eventual shot anyway. But Trossard’s error was in the decision to accept Odegaard’s pass and reject the option of squaring it for Gabriel Martinelli. He instead continued his run towards goal and his head-height, near-post effort asked far too little of Ortega.

Both sides came that close to an agreeable point becoming either a statement victory or season-defining defeat. Those are the margins in a laughably tight three-team title race and it will be wonderful fun to see any of those involved be accused of bottling it.

Erling Haaland shakes hands with Gabriel after a match.
Erling Haaland shakes hands with Gabriel after a match.


15) Odegaard’s pressing was ridiculous; he was charging Manchester City down alone at times as his teammates genuinely seemed to struggle to maintain that pace. And he was the orchestrator of their two best opportunities, playing the pass for Saka’s cross towards Jesus and sliding Trossard in after receiving Thomas Partey’s line-breaking ball.

Plenty has been made in certain circles of Odegaard’s disappearing act on such occasions. He was comfortably the best attacking player on either side here. It really wasn’t close.

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16) Not a great game for the Valdanos of this world then. But Tony Pulis must have had an absolute blast of a Sunday evening: two Premiership title contenders fielding four centre-halves each, and Arsenal playing it straight back to Raya from kick-off to allow the keeper to lump it up to one of the many big men up top for a flick-on. The cap he was undoubtedly wearing while definitely standing up in his living room will have been thoroughly doffed.