Author: Ben Kitto
Some will say that expectations should still be tempered, but Saturday’s loss was an opportunity missed
There haven’t been too many better times to play Manchester City over the last few years. While, on paper, Pep Guardiola’s side is one of the best in world football, capable of blowing away any team on their day, in reality their start to this season has been a lot more chaotic and, heading into Saturday evening’s clash with Arsenal, they looked far from unbeatable.
That chaos was abundant in the line-up, or rather, how wrong everyone was about it. With two natural right-backs on the field in Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo, the assumption was that one would play on the left and one would play on the right. In fact, Pep arguably opted to sacrifice defensive steel by playing Walker at centre-back (where he’d had so much trouble last week with England) in order to counter the pace of Aubameyang in the channel, and Cancelo stayed at right-back, with Nathan Ake slotting in at left-back.
Arsenal’s line-up was much more predictable. The now usual 3-4-3 persisted, with Gabriel, Luiz and Tierney continuing in defence, a midfield of Bellerin and Saka either side of Xhaka and Ceballos, and Aubameyang, Willian and Pepe comprising the front three. The main surprise was that Willian found himself for large parts of the game operating down the middle, in lieu of a bona fide striker.
This speaks to the main problem Arsenal faced on Saturday night. While defensively, Mikel Arteta’s side looked largely solid – being punished by leaving the midfield too far up the pitch for Raheem Sterling’s winner – the larger problem was that Arsenal failed to create the chances they needed when they were chasing the game, and failed to take the ones that came their way.
Those notable chances came in the form of a lucky deflection off Ederson’s shoulder sending the ball looping narrowly wide from a Saka shot; a Pepe header being relatively comfortably saved; a fluke Kieran Tierney drive/cross which the keeper had to tip over the bar, and… not much else.
Arteta’s intention in playing Willian down the middle might have been inspired had it come off. Arsenal have needed for some time to get more players in between the lines in order to hurt teams creatively, and, with Mesut Ozil out in the cold, Willian is the closest they can get at the moment. But right now, Arsenal are so focused on being disciplined and well-drilled in defence that their approach play is suffering. This was particularly apparent on Saturday, when Arsenal managed just four shots in the second half – two of which came from free-kicks.
Arsenal are nowhere near the finished article, in terms of the overall identity of how the manager wants them to play; Arteta is severely limited in that regard by resources and personnel. But they are a team that has shown they have the nouse to upset the top teams when they play their cards right, and Arsenal fans could be forgiven for feeling frustrated that they failed to deliver this weekend. Time will tell whether the arrival of Thomas Partey will instigate the use of a creative midfielder further up the pitch – or whether Mesut Ozil will be able to make the most of his reported month’s grace period to get back into Arteta’s good books. What’s certain, however, is that more than a few detractors would have sat up and taken notice of Arteta and Arsenal if the result had gone their way on Saturday. Missed chances and a creative dearth means that they haven’t.
For much of Saturday night, Willian found himself through the middle. Whether that was by Mikel Arteta’s design from the start, or whether it was a result of the innumerable and befuddling tactical tweaks made by both managers during the game is unclear. But what is clear is that there has seldom been a better time at which to play Manchester City and end Arsenal’s nigh-on six year wait for an away win against a “Big Six” team. And Arsenal failed to take their chance.
The strangeness of this encounter was there to see from the off on Saturday, with Garry Neville and Martin Tyler remarking numerous times in commentary about how wrong the team at Sky had been about how Pep Guardiola would set his team up. With two natural right-backs on the pitch, the assumption was that Guardiola would play Joao Cancelo on the left and Kyle Walker on the right. What we actually saw was Kyle Walker at centre-back – as he had been on that troubling night at Wembley for England last week – and Cancelo at right-back, with Nathan Ake the surprise pick to slot in at left-back. In open play, of course, the system was a lot more liquid, sometimes seeing Bernardo Silva drop behind the defensive line, and Raheem Sterling frequently finding himself further up the field than newly fit-again Sergio Aguero. All of this to say that, despite the money City have invested in their back line this summer, Pep Guardiola’s team is far from settled, and less than formidable.
Arsenal, for their part, were a lot more conventional. Apart from the appearance of Willian down the middle for much of the game, it was Mikel Arteta’s usual, with Aubameyang on the left wing, Pepe on the right, a back three of Gabriel, Luiz and Tierney, with Saka and Bellerin on either side of Xhaka and Ceballos.