With all the festive cheer out of the way, everyone’s turkey-fed attention returned to football. The New Year saw Arsenal handed arguably one of the toughest challenges that a team could be handed, a visit from Manchester City, with their own manager unable to attend the match, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
It arguably doesn’t get any harder than that.
There was one positive, however, as Rob Holding was dropped to the bench as Arsenal heralded the return of Takehiro Tomiyasu at full-back, meaning that Ben White could move back into the centre of defence.
For the most part, the game was very evenly matched.
Manchester City started much faster than Arsenal, but failed to make their early pressure count. A chance for Rúben Dias to open the scoring was as close as the visitors came.
Arsenal had a very good shout for a penalty after Ederson brought down Martin Ødegaard in the penalty area, but the referee waved play on and VAR found no infringement.
To everyone, including the Arsenal fans, it was the home side who took the lead.
A fantastic tackle from Ben White allowed Arsenal to break. Soon, the ballw as over to Kieran Tierney on the far side and he slid a slide-rule pass into the path of Bukayo Saka, who lazily guided home an expert finish beyond Ederson.
It was a fantastic team goal and it was one that typified just how well Arsenal had been playing up to that point.
Arsenal could even have had a third, after a silky run from Gabriel Martinelli ended in his shot just slinking past the post.
The question was whether or not Arsenal would be able to sustain the pressure of the first-half in the second-half and the answer was yes, though not until the referee and VAR had had their say.
A slinky run into the box by Bernardo Silva forced a 50/50 with Granit Xhaka who brought the Portuguese winger down with a shirt-pull. The referee initially waved play-on, before being advised to review the incident again on the VAR screens, which led to City’s penalty and subsequent conversion.
Arsenal really struggled from there, however, they were nearly handed a life raft after Rúben Dias’ loose header looped over his own goalkeeper and Nathan Aké was forced to clear the ball off the line, the ball fell to Gabriel Martinelli, who blazed his effort against the post and out.
A few seconds later, Gabriel Magalhães clattered into Gabriel Jesus and was shown a fairly undeserved red card for a second yellow, having been booked in the aftermath of the penalty controversy for arguing with the referee.
Arsenal looked as though they may just be able to hold on for a point, before, in the dying embers of the game, Rodri sprang loose in the penalty area and was able to roll the visitor’s in front before the final whistle blew.
It was a hammer blow to Arsenal and one they didn’t deserve at all. A loss at home after dominating arguably one of the best teams in Europe was always going to be a bitter pill to swallow, but when the decisions are what ultimately swung it, it’s difficult not to feel a thousand times worse.
The first decision was the controversial penalty not given for Martin Ødegaard. The Norwegian was clearly tripped in the penalty area by the onrushing goalkeeper and yet, neither the referee or VAR thought to give a penalty, whereas Bernardo Silva’s, just as tight a call as Ødegaard’s, was called back. The lack of consistency has cost Arsenal and not just in this game as Watford were beaten by Tottenham after having a decision not given their way either.
The red card for Gabriel Magalhães was also not justifiable either. A yellow card initially for protesting was silly from him, but then to be sent off a few minutes later for a fairly innocuous challenge on Gabriel Jesus was the icing on the cake.
And yet, the referees will remain unpunished for poor decisions that have cost a team a match.
On the field, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Thomas Partey were 2 standout performers for Arsenal today. While their win over Norwich didn’t really highlight how much they missed him, having Tomiyasu back in the side meant that Arsenal looked rock solid on the flank and Raheem Sterling, who initially started well, was kept quiet all game.
Thomas Partey, meanwhile, absolutely ran the show in midfield. All his flicks and tricks played off beautifully and his languid running style meant that City couldn’t get near him and he was more than deserving of his man of the match award.
It’s a tough pill for Arsenal to swallow, but they’ll need to suck it up and focus as they now face a mammoth task of trying to win their League Cup semi-final first leg tie against Liverpool at home, before then travelling away to Nottingham Firest in the FA Cup, back to Anfield for the second leg of their semi-final and then away to Tottenham, which could be a defining moment in Arsenal’s season.
32.) Aaron Ramsdale
18.) Takehiro Tomiyasu
4.) Ben White
6.) Gabriel Magalhães 🔴
3.) Kieran Tierney
34.) Granit Xhaka
5.) Thomas Partey
7.) Bukayo Saka (Elneny 84’)
8.) Martin Ødegaard (Holding 63’)
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (c) (Smith Rowe 71’)
1.) Bernd Leno
16.) Rob Holding
20.) Nuno Tavares
17.) Cédric Soares
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
25.) Mohamed Elneny
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
10.) Emile Smith Rowe
19.) Nicolas Pépé
Manchester City team:
27.) João Cancelo
3.) Rúben Dias
14.) Aymeric Laporte
6.) Nathan Aké
17.) Kevin De Bruyne
20.) Bernardo Silva
26.) Riyad Mahrez
7.) Raheem Sterling
9.) Gabriel Jesus (Gündoğan 63’)
Manchester City subs:
13.) Zack Steffen
79.) Luke Mbete
2.) Kyle Walker
8.) İlkay Gündoğan
87.) James McAtee
80.) Cole Palmer
10.) Jack Grealish