Like many of you, I’m sure, I thought about this game a lot before it happened. There were good scenarios and bad scenarios, and in my least optimistic moments, what happened last night was the one I pictured most often. Man City would be excellent, we’d be below par, and the game and title momentum would go their way.
Which isn’t to say I’m some kind of sage, far from it. It’s just that we’ve seen what City can do to almost any team when they’re on form and the opposition aren’t. So it proved. Mikel Arteta made one change from the side that faced Southampton, Granit Xhaka replacing Fabio Vieira, everything else as it was. Which wasn’t a surprise, but as I wrote yesterday, I wondered if some change might have been a consideration to refocus his players.
Their early goal was, I suppose, very nice from their perspective, but from ours it felt too easy. A long ball towards Haaland who held off Rob Holding then played a ball for Kevin de Bruyne to run onto. The Belgian had left Thomas Partey behind, a feature of the evening, and he ran beyond Gabriel and curled in a shot which perhaps Aaron Ramsdale might have done better with. Given the goalkeeper’s heroics afterwards though, it feels a bit churlish to criticise him for it – especially when our defenders and nominal holding midfielder had been found wanting in much more obvious fashion.
One of our key strengths this season has been our wide men and how quickly we get the ball to them to stretch the opposition. City pressed us so well we could barely get it to them at all. Gabriel Martinelli, who has had a superb campaign, left the pitch after an hour having had just 11 touches of the ball. It was relentless, and we had no real answer to it.
Silva went through and Ramsdale saved; Ben White had to make a superb block after de Bruyne was allowed to run through again and into our box; Ramsdale made one brilliant save from Haaland, then another as the Norwegian too easily got away from Holding; Haaland shot wide after side-stepping our defence; and once again Ramsdale was the hero, saving with his legs from Haaland, then swiping the ball clear as City looked to pounce on the rebound.
In my mind, I was crafting the ‘1-0 at half-time, Ramsdale has kept us in this game’ Tweet, when City were given a second goal. I say given because I can’t believe Stones wasn’t offside. I’m sorry, when you see the angle where the ball is played and it’s straight on, he looks miles off. We got a VAR review which showed a completely different angle with no sign of when the ball was kicked. Does this take away from how dominant City were? Obviously not, but it felt a bit like being pummeled in a bar fight, only for the bouncer to come over and hold your arms behind your back so they could get in a few more punches unopposed. But, they drew lines this time at least. Let’s be thankful for that. It’s not why we lost, or played badly, but it’s still annoying (to me at least).
I would have liked the manager to try something at half-time, a change of shape because this one was obviously not working, but he stuck with it. A few minutes in, and Martin Odegaard’s layoff to Partey was under-hit, City pounced, yet again de Bruyne was free as a bird between the lines to run at the defence, and the fact he nutmegged Holding for the finish with such insouciance summed it up.
At that point, City took their foot off the gas/our necks, and we had a bit more possession, if little in the way of threat. The away fans were in excellent voice, and kudos to them for it, as we introduced Jorginho, Trossard and Smith Rowe, but it made little difference. City, for their part, switched out one world class player for another without any interruption in service or cohesion. This is what they have built, with all the advantages we’re well aware of, but for all the talk of going toe to toe with them – true in terms of Premier League points at least – there’s still a significant gap between the quality, depth and maturity of the two teams. At the very least you can say that a game like this can be useful, in a weird way, as a kind of marker for what we have still do when it comes to what we’re trying to build.
Rob Holding scored a late goal, barely even a consolation, and when Haaland let his hair down like he was in a Timotei ad, it felt inevitable he’d have his moment. It came via weak defending and a shot Ramsdale should probably have saved, but given it was in the depths of injury time, it was more annoying than impactful. And the Arsenal keeper might feel justified in asking his centre-halves if they fancied, you know, dealing with shit a bit better.
So, 4-1 in the end, the title is now very much in City’s hands, and it was – to be frank – a rather chastening evening for this Arsenal team. Especially in the context of this season where, for the most part, we’ve played so well. We haven’t been dominated like this over 90 minutes by anyone, not even City in the previous game, so that adds another layer of hurt to the result.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta seemed a bit shell-shocked on surface, but below that you suspect there might be some choice words for his players who, based on what he said, didn’t compete the way he wanted:
We were beaten by the better team, that’s for sure. They were exceptional today and when that’s the case, it’s extremely difficult to reach that level and we were not near enough our level, especially in the first half. And when you open that gap against them, you get punished.
We did not compete well enough in every duel and it has to start at that. They won every single duel, we had them in the corners and from there in two passes they were in front of our goal. We conceded from a set play, we conceded from a throw in against us too easily. In everything, they deserve to win the game because they were better.
We know how much he values competitiveness in the duels, and for all City’s quality, I think he’s right about this. The very least you can do is compete, but they were stronger and quicker and more alert, and that will hurt him. Both centre-halves had a torrid time, and ahead of them I thought our most experienced players let us down. Partey looked like he couldn’t run, such were the dust-clouds as opponents ran away from him over and over, and he was a bit lucky to escape a second yellow late on; Zinchenko and Xhaka were nowhere to be seen, and when they were there was just nonsense like scrapping with Grealish and Zinchenko’s terrible throw-ins; Jesus and Odegaard at least looked like they were trying but nothing came off; and as I mentioned, we could barely get the ball to Saka and Martinelli.
You can’t go anywhere and expect to win Premier League points with so many players below par, least of all Man City. Credit to a couple of the subs for a few moments here and there, but it came when everyone knew the game was won, and City were cruising. Even the late goal as some kind of comfort was wiped out by their fourth. All in all, a bruising night.
But, as hard as it might be to think about this in the immediate aftermath of last night, we still have five games to go. Yes, anything can happen – not that I think City will drop enough points for the pendulum to swing our way again – but we have to just make sure we take as many as possible and see what happens. We’re in a difficult patch of form, and we’ve got to drag ourselves out of it asap. There’s no time for feeling sorry for ourselves.
With Chelsea on Tuesday, I do think the manager is going to have to change something about his team. Exactly what, I don’t know, but that’s a discussion we can have over the coming days. We need a spark from somewhere, and a way to find some defensive solidity again first and foremost. No doubt that’s going to be part of his thinking, and we can go over the permutations closer to the time.
For now, we have lick our considerable wounds, and go again.
James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you later today. We’re recording late monring keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
We should have the podcast for you after lunch at some point. Until then.