Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Man City 0-0 Arsenal: Gunners make their point at the Etihad at last

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For the first time since December 2015 2016, Arsenal avoided defeat away to Man City. For the first time in 58 games at the Etihad, Man City failed to score a goal. It’s not a game that will go down in the annals as a classic, but in the context of our record there, it’s one that Mikel Arteta will be pleased about – even if it does leave us behind Liverpool in the title race.

The team saw Gabriel Jesus start for the first time since the end of January, playing on the left hand side, while the rest was pretty much as expected. The game quickly settled into a familiar pattern, with lots of City possession, and lots of it in our half. It was interesting to hear Martin Odegaard talk afterwards about how Arsenal playing that deep wasn’t part of the plan, it was just how it transpired:

We had to defend a lot, a bit more deep than we planned to. I feel like we were dangerous in certain moments on the counter when we managed to keep the ball for a little bit. but it’s hard when you’ve defended for a while and you get the ball and your legs are heavy.

Still, this is an Arsenal team who have built a platform on defensive solidity this season. We ended the first period with as many shots as City, and there were moments of attacking threat too. Jesus shot wide at the back post, then curled another beyond the far post. His tendency to hang onto the ball a bit too long is a frustration, but given he hasn’t played much of late, I thought he was effective enough yesterday.

City’s only real chance was a Nathan Ake header from a corner which could have been a lot more dangerous if he’d made proper contact, but David Raya was there to stop it. There was also a scrappiness about Arsenal in the first half that was a bit uncharacteristic. Raya slipped a couple of times and made bad passes, Odegaard’s range wasn’t quite there – at one point playing a pass off Declan Rice’s back where normally he’d have threaded it where he wanted it to go – and in defence we had two members of the back four whose passing stats were well below what you’d normally expect.

Jakub Kiwior was at 54% passing accuracy, which can sometimes happen to a full-back when they’re something an outlet with not much happening ahead of them, but the usually impeccable William Saliba at 66% was very unusual. It was part of why we were under such pressure, because we kept coughing up possession. Only Ben White really stood out for us in that first half, playing at something close to his usual level while others struggled to find their rhythm as City’s possession choke-hold restricted us.

We were tidier in the second half, as City grew more frustrated and the game got a bit tetchy at times. There was another chance for Jesus when Saka fizzed a good ball across, but rather than a failing of the forward, I think it’s actually an excellent bit of defending from Manuel Akanji who just gave him a little nudge as he was trying to throw himself at the ball. It put him off his stride sufficiently, and if Saliba or Gabriel had done that, we’d be talking about their canny defending.

With nothing doing with the players they had on the pitch, City had to change things, taking off the ineffective Foden and Kovacic to put on Jack Grealish and Jeremy Doku – two wingers who can really cause you problems. Arteta responded with Tomiyasu and Partey for Kiwior and Jorginho. Leandro Trossard soon followed, and an obviously fatigued Saka was replaced by Gabriel Martinelli.

Those two should have provided a potential match-winning moment for Arsenal, when Odegaard played the Belgian in behind. Martinelli’s run on the far side was perfect, Trossard’s first touch was anything but. It meant the chance to find the pass was cut out, he eventually had a shot which was easy for the keeper, and Arteta’s frustration on the sideline was evident. Despite City’s dominance, I think Arsenal had the best chances to score in this game, so if there is a tinge of regret, it’s that we didn’t quite make the most of them – especially one that late in the game.

Up the other end, Erling Haaland flitted between Saliba and Gabriel to see if he could get any joy. There was no joy. He, like Kevin de Bruyne, has caused us so many problems in the past, but the two centre-halves and Declan Rice in midfield worked so hard to negate their threat almost completely. A few set-pieces from de Bruyne, and nothing much from the best goalscorer in the Premier League. That takes a lot of effort.

I can’t sit here this morning and say I was completely chilled out during that second half, because you know with the quality City have a goal could come at any moment, but the way this team stays organised and disciplined goes a long way to instill a sense of trust that City could huff and puff and not blow the house down. So it proved. There was no way through for them, and while I don’t think this was a must-win game for us, it was certainly one we couldn’t lose. That record at the Etihad is one we had to put a halt to, and we worked very, very hard to ensure that we got something from this game.

I quite enjoyed the Gabriel/Haaland stuff at the end, it was a real battle between the two and the way they hugged it out was quite nice. I can’t say the same for Pep Guardiola’s decision to come onto the pitch to berate Jack Grealish so publicly, that felt performative and weird to me, and City’s inability to break Arsenal down had much less to do with him than some of the others.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said of the result and performance:

Obviously, it generates belief, it continues the momentum, and the good position that we are in. We are improving, and we are competing better, and we are understanding how you have to play these games, but there are more steps to make to win championships. It’s extremely difficult to do that but that tells you the commitment of every player, the discipline that they showed and how they compete

Was this game a classic for the neutral? Absolutely not, but Arsenal have no duty to entertain the neutral, only to do what is best for them. I think if you offered any fan 4 points from 6 against Man City and Liverpool at the start of the season, they’d have bitten your hand off for it. It probably says a lot about how much progress we’ve made that there is a tinge of disappointment to not taking all three points yesterday, but as a marker of progress, I think it’s evident that this is a team that has now closed the gap on the two best sides in the Premier League over the last 5 or 6 years.

There’s more to do, obviously, but it’s easy to forget how much that felt like a pipe dream when we were being routinely rattled by Liverpool and City, home and away. There’s a maturity there now, and a much under-discussed vein of cynicism that is absolutely necessary. Witness Raya’s time-wasting on every goal kick, entirely deliberate, and while some might not care for that kind of thing, you have to be able to do it. Similarly, I loved Odegaard just taking Rodri out when he tried to spin beyond him. Small things, but important things.

I think it’s also worth mentioning this game taking place directly after an Interlull, when preparation is obviously impacted, and the levels of players vary because they’ve either been away or haven’t played for a couple of weeks. You often see that reflected in performances, and that was true of yesterday. Now though, this big one is out of the way. This boil has been lanced, and now we turn our attention to Wednesday night and a home game against Luton.

Meanwhile, Big congrats to Arsenal Women who won the Conti Cup yesterday in extra-time thanks to a Stina Blackstenius goal. Beating Chelsea is always good, especially when you consider some of the post-game reaction from their manager, but the most important thing is the trophy itself, especially in a season which has been a bit underwhelming.

For more, Tim has all the reaction on Arseblog News.

Ok, let’s leave it there. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re an Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around noon. Until then.

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