With their abysmal league form proving to be a sombre reminder of just how far Mikel Arteta’s side still has to come, Arsenal can take some comfort from the fact that in cup competitions they are still going strong.
Though the quality of opposition in the Europa League is perhaps not as scintillating as it is in the Champions League or the Premier League, Arsenal still boast a healthy 100% win record in the competition this season and were still very much alive in the League Cup.
Having beaten Leicester City and Liverpool along the way, the next test of Arsenal’s steel was the visit of Manchester City, Arsenal’s first game at the Emirates Stadium in the competition.
There were a few surprises sprang in the lineup, with Cédric Soares, Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson and Sead Kolašinac all surprisingly given the nod while Gabriel Martinelli made his first start in over nine months.
Things did not start off well for Arsenal as they found themselves behind within two minutes. Terrible defending from Arsenal allowed Gabriel Jesus to head in Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross at the near-post. Shkodran Mustafi seemed unwilling to stick his neck out for the ball and Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson dived wildly anywhere but near the ball and City found themselves in front.
However, those thinking that goal would represent something of an opening of the proverbial floodgates were sadly mistaken. Though Arsenal seemingly blundered their way out of trouble for the most part, City never looked particularly likely to score again.
Arsenal’s best player on the night was clearly Gabriel Martinelli, the Brazilian youngster having recently returned from injury and who looked desperate to prove himself and show why he is one of Europe’s hottest talents and the Brazilian was a nuisance for City’s rather nervous defence.
Soon enough, the Brazilian found himself in a crossing position and though his initial cross was just about beaten away, Dani Ceballos soon managed to engineer the ball back to Martinelli who made no mistake with his second cross and Lacazette was there to head the ball in.
It looked as though Arsenal’s second-half tactic would be to contain City as much as possible, as they had done in the FA Cup semi-final last season and try and either grab a counter-attacking second goal or to try and take the game to penalties, as they had done at Liverpool in the previous round. However, these plans were scuppered when Martinelli, who had taken a pretty hefty blow in the first-half courtesy of Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffens, found himself unable to continue in the second-half and was withdrawn for Nicolas Pépé.
From there, Arsenal seemed to lose their shape and confidence, none more so than Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, who had looked shaky all game. The Icelandic summer signing fumbled an easy save from Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick and City found themselves in front once more and Arsenal looked totally at sea.
Shortly afterwards, Phil Foden found himself put through from an exquisite ball from Fernandinho and the England international dinked the ball over a grounded Rúnarsson and gave City a two-goal cushion. Though VAR might have ruled the goal out for offside, it was a very tight call for the assistant to make and Arsenal could have very few complaints as City began to run riot.
Poor defending from Arsenal following a short corner, found Phil Foden whipping in a sumptuous ball for Aymeric Laporte and the Frenchman headed in the final goal of the game. Arsenal looked glad as the final whistle blew.
Though Manchester City had thoroughly deserved their victory and had looked the better side throughout the game, the scoreline was perhaps a little flattering. Rúnarsson’s fumble had gifted them their second goal and the third was, however infinitesimal, offside. However, City had dominated and bowed out as deserved winners on the night.
For Mikel Arteta, there were negatives and positives to draw from.
From the negative standpoints, Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson’s performance was a very distinct cause for concern. The Icelandic goalkeeper looked as though he struggled with the concept of playing-out-from-the-back or indeed generally having the ball at your feet and regularly seemed to be at odds with his defenders as to where the ball should be sent to. His fumble for Mahrez’s goal did little to aid his confidence and despite an impressive earlier save, it was difficult to see Rúnarsson as anything other than a very average goalkeeper flailing his arms around wildly in the hope he may connect to something whenever an attack was formed.
Elsewhere, the performance of Shkodran Mustafi was likely to raise eyebrows too. With rumours swirling that Mikel Arteta had been keen to extend the German’s stay in North London (Mustafi’s contract runs out at the end of the season), Arsenal fans have every right to question why the Spaniard was so keen for Mustafi to remain with him.
Mustafi’s performances since signing in 2016 have been fairly controversial for Arsenal fans anyway – capable of brilliant tackles and slide-rule passes one minute and then capable of utterly losing his head and struggling with even basic-level understanding of defending the next – however, his performance last night will lead many to wonder just what Mikel Arteta sees in the German defender that would merit entertaining the possibility of retaining his services.
However, the performance of Gabriel Martinelli was sure to be a boost for Mikel Arteta as his attentions turn to Chelsea, whom Arsenal host on Boxing Day. Martinelli was a handful for City all evening and they seemed utterly incapable of containing him and his withdrawal at the beginning of the second-half was a sign of how impressive Martinelli is, that Arsenal are relying on a 19-year-old boy to carry their hopes forward.
Though his injury looked extremely painful, the Brazilian looks to be okay for Saturday’s visit of Chelsea and Arsenal fans will hope that he can deliver in the same way as he did at Stamford Bridge last season and all Arsenal fans will be hoping that they can sort their league form out before things become too drastic.
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
17.) Cédric Soares
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
31.) Sead Kolašinac
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
25.) Mohamed Elneny (Smith-Rowe 66’)
8.) Dani Ceballos
28.) Joe Willock
35.) Gabriel Martinelli (Pépé 49’)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Balogun 77’)
1.) Bernd Leno
22.) Pablo Marí
3.) Kieran Tierney
32.) Emile Smith-Rowe
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
38.) Folarian Balogun
Manchester City team:
13.) Zack Steffen
27.) João Cancelo
3.) Rúben Dias
14.) Aymeric Laporte
11.) Oleksandr Zinchenko
16.) Rodri (Walker 77’)
25.) Fernandinho (c)
26.) Riyad Mahrez
20.) Bernardo Silva (Torres 70’)
47.) Phil Foden
9.) Gabriel Jesus (Agüero 74’)
Manchester City subs:
5.) John Stones
2.) Kyle Walker
8.) İlkay Gündoğan
7.) Raheem Sterling
21.) Ferran Torres
10.) Sergio Agüero