The Etihad has never been a particularly fond hunting ground for Arsenal with their last win away from home against the “Cityzens” coming in January of 2015, which was also the team’s last win away at a Top Six opposition.
Heading into the match, Arsenal had reason to be optimistic however. Manchester City had not only struggled against newly promoted Leeds United and Leicester City, but they were also without their star midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne.
Arsenal’s confidence took a slight knock early on as Rob Holding was ruled out, despite being in the starting eleven, after picking up a knock in the warm-up, meaning David Luiz, whose last trip to the Etihad is best left forgotten.
For Mikel Arteta, a return to the stadium where he assisted Manchester City to two Premier League titles, two League Cups, two Community Shields and an FA Cup, the match was likely a daunting affair.
Despite this, Arsenal started well. It would be near impossible for Arsenal to be able to dominate City in the way they would like, given the somewhat obvious gulf in quality between the two sides, but Arteta’s side seemed to nullify a lot of City’s more dangerous attempts.
There were certainly warnings signs from the home side, most notably from Riyad Mahrez, who twisted and turned through Kieran Tierney on multiple occasions, forcing some good saves from Bernd Leno.
Despite Arsenal’s apparent solidity, Manchester City inevitably took the lead. Leno managed to keep out Phil Foden’s initial attempt, but merely parried the save into the feet of Raheem Sterling, who fired the home side in front.
It was not totally unexpected, but it was still a disappointing blow to Arsenal, who had worked so hard to keep City out.
From there, Arsenal managed to fashion a few attempts of their own, mainly through youngster Bukayo Saka, who dazzled his way through City’s defence, to force a good save from Ederson. Saka and Dani Ceballos were Arsenal’s main creative threats and though there was still a scarcity of creativity about Mikel Arteta’s side in the continued absence of Mesut Özil, Arsenal looked far more creative on Saturday than in previous matches.
There was a late shout at the end of the half for a penalty, as Gabriel Magalhães’ header of the ball was met by the high-foot of the excellent Kyle Walker, however, referee Chris Kavanagh waved away any protests by blowing for half-time, before VAR could confirm or deny the chance.
The second half was a far less interesting affair from both sides. Arsenal failed to create many chances and so too, did Manchester City. City were clearly lacking the creative powerhouse of Kevin De Bruyne and were also met by an uncharacteristically solid Arsenal back line, who managed to keep most of City’s attempts out.
New boy Thomas Partey, recently signed from Atlético Madrid for £45m was given a run out in the last ten minutes or so, but it was of little consequence to Arsenal and the Ghanian swiftly picked up a yellow card.
The final whistle brought the game to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Though Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola can be more than happy with the defensive contributions of their respective teams, both managers will be disappointed by the offensive output from their teams.
Arsenal’s somewhat staggering lack of creative quality was made abundantly clear once again as Arsenal failed to fashion themselves many chances. Though Kyle Walker was on top form during the match, Arsenal’s long-ball tactic to exploit the pace of Nicolas Pépé and the once again extremely quiet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was ill-conceived and it became clear very quickly that Arsenal and Arteta lacked a Plan B.
The other bizarre element of Arsenal’s tactical setup was the use of Willian. For the third successive match, Arteta has left Alexandre Lacazette on the bench, though instead of new U21 goalscoring record holder Eddie Nketiah being preferred, Arteta instead opted to have Willian as the central attacker.
While it’s obvious that Arteta was favouring a false-nine position for the Brazilian, akin to Roberto Firmino’s role at Liverpool, Willian’s positioning still seemed an odd tactical choice. Willian has never played in the position and Pierre-Emeric Aubameyang, who has spent much of his career as the central forward, was the more obvious candidate for the position, hell, even Nicolas Pépé was the more obvious choice.
Arteta clearly wanted Arsenal to have pace on the wings and positional unpredictability in the middle, however, the plan seemed to back-fire, especially since Arsenal rarely exploited the gaps on the flank and opted more for the long-ball-over-the-top approach, which provided very few opportunities, given Nathan Aké and Rúben Dias’ superiority in the air.
There were certainly positives for Arteta to take from the match and Arsenal’s inability to beat what is likely one of the top five teams in world football is unlikely to beheld against either him or the team, however, the result will still linger and will be a source of irritation for a few days for the talented Spaniard as attention now turns to Arsenal’s first Europa League match of the season, away to Rapid Vienna on Thursday night.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
23.) David Luiz
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
34.) Granit Xhaka (Partey 83′)
8.) Dani Ceballos
7.) Bukayo Saka
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Nketiah 83’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
12.) Willian (Lacazette 69’)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
25.) Mohamed Elneny
18.) Thomas Partey
30.) Eddie Nketiah
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Manchester City team:
2.) Kyle Walker
3.) Rúben Dias
6.) Nathan Aké
27.) João Cancelo
26.) Riyad Mahrez
47.) Phil Foden (Fernandinho 89’)
20.) Bernardo Silva
7.) Raheem Sterling (c)
19.) Sergio Agüero (Gündoğan 65’)
Manchester City subs:
13.) Zak Steffen
5.) John Stones
50.) Eric García
8.) İlkay Gündoğan
21.) Ferran Torres
48.) Liam Delap