Another game away to a “Big 6” opponent. Another loss for Arsenal. With today’s 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, the Gunners haven’t won in 29 away matches against top opponents — 19 losses, 10 draws. Mikel Arteta’s side didn’t play poorly, but they really didn’t generate much at all going forward. And last I checked, you’re never going to win a match if you don’t score.
For the most part, the defensive shape and structure was solid. Manchester City’s goal came off a turnover that caught Gabriel a bit too far up the pitch, a bad step/angle from Dani Ceballos that opened up space, Hector Bellerin getting beat from a tough spot, and a rebound from Bernd Leno. I’m not going to heap too much blame on the keeper for not controlling a rebound on a reaction save on a 12-yard shot, though. That he even made the initial stop is impressive. With the offense struggling to get going, Arsenal have little to no room for error, especially against a team like Manchester City that is going to score if you give them chances.
The Gunners’ attack came to life towards the end of the first half. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang drifted more centrally, which opened up space for Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney to work down the left, and both Saka and Aubameyang saw good chances saved by Ederson. The halftime break probably came at an unfortunate time for Arsenal — they were looking likely to score in the next few minutes.
Unfortunately, the second half was a desultory one. City were happy to possess the ball without venturing too far forward. When Arsenal did get on the ball, they didn’t offer much. Willian was virtually invisible playing through the middle. It’s not really clear what his role was supposed to be. But whatever it was, Mikel Arteta should scrap that tactical plan.
Bukayo Saka was Arsenal’s best player all match and offered most of the attacking impetus in the second half. One move in particular sticks out to me as illustrative of the Gunners attacking issues. Saka drove the ball forward wide left beyond the 18, pulling two defenders with him. When he turned back to find support, there were no options beyond a benign back pass to recycle possession. Arsenal need to have somebody running in behind him, towards the corner of the area into the space he just created. But they don’t have that player on the pitch.
The question, for me, is can Dani Ceballos or Thomas Partey become that player. I expect Partey to sit a bit deeper as the primary (first) ball progressor, but he does venture forward from time to time. The hope is that his passing range and coverage will free up Ceballos to get further forward and take up those prime attacking positions. And for what it’s worth, the scouting on Partey is that he understands space really well, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds those pockets periodically, too. Partey got his runout today, but that’s about all there is to say about his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt.
It wasn’t a bad game, per se, from Arsenal. But it wasn’t good enough. The lack of offense against top teams is a concern. Right now, the plan seems to be keep it even or within one, then hope to snatch a late goal. That’s not sustainable. Arsenal need to improve their record away to the top clubs if they really want to challenge from the Premier League title again.
That said, Arsenal are still in a fine position to open the season. Coming into things, you don’t expect to win at Liverpool or City. It’s a bit frustrating because without Kevin De Bruyne for Pep Guardiola and City’s tepid performance, it feels like Arsenal could have managed something, but I’m not going to get too worked up until the Gunners drop points they should have won.