I made it pretty clear before the match that I was expecting Manchester City to batter Arsenal today. The stats that Pep Guardiola’s side are putting up during their current 18-match unbeaten streak are otherworldly. They’re scoring in bunches and barely conceding shots on goal let alone actual goals. They’re probably the best side in the world right now. And Arsenal held them to 1-0.
The opening 10 minutes looked as if Arsenal would get overrun. Manchester City scored in the second minute through Raheem Sterling pulling off the back of Rob Holding and getting a completely free header. You really expect either Holding or Hector Bellerin to be marking closer and at least challenge in the air. And I’m pretty sure I could have gotten a cross off from the amount of space Kieran Tierney conceded to Riyad Mahrez. But if Tierney gets too tight there, maybe Mahrez gets around him and to the goal-line for the cutback.
The point there is sometimes the opponents are just better than you are, and there’s not much you can do about it. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Arsenal did quite well to settle into the match and limit City’s attack for the remaining 80 minutes. Yes, they had chances, but you’re never going to completely stop their attack. And their best chance came from Joao Cancelo on a move that should have been blown dead for a head injury. Immediately after Cancelo’s shot went wide, Rob Holding got medical attention and was subbed off under the new concussion protocol. Sidenote: that’s really, really poor officiating from Jon Moss — he’s got to blow the play dead when a guy takes a knee to the head. Holding walked off the pitch on his own power, but he looked a bit shell-shocked.
Again, I come back to the fact that Arsenal held City to just the one goal on the day. That’s pretty good. They gave themselves a chance to get a result. With a better attack / doing a bit more with the handful of half chances they had, the Gunners could have nabbed a point.
Unfortunately, Arsenal offered very little going forward today. I think part of that is down to Manchester City being strong in the midfield and really good defensively. And I think part of that is because Arsenal had the midfielder pairing of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Xhaka is a fine ball-progressor. Elneny is not. It’s tough to generate an attack when the ball isn’t getting to the guys who can create.
Martin Ødegaard had a nondescript match. How much of that was him not getting the ball versus Manchester City just being good? Who knows.
Mohamed Elneny is tough to evaluate. In the first half, he completed 100% of his passes. They weren’t difficult passes and a lot of them were backwards. He’s about as ambitious in his passing as having a PB&J sandwich every day for lunch. But there is value to someone who is tidy on the ball and doesn’t lose possession. He’s also rarely out of position, and he clogs things up in the midfield. But again, he hamstrings the attack.
That’s probably okay in matches like today’s where you’re looking to shutdown a juggernaut of an attack like City’s, but is it good enough in the long run? Probably not. Ideally, you’d want somebody (like Thomas Partey) who does those defensive things but also progresses the ball up the pitch when he wins it, and maybe in doing that he gives it away a bit more, too.
Arsenal also slowed City down by having Pablo Mari track Kevin De Bruyne / Ilkay Gundogan quite high up the pitch. There were occasions where he followed one of them to the edge of the City defensive third. The Manchester City goal aside, I thought Rob Holding had a strong match. I particularly enjoyed when he ghosted past a man and then just ran over Fernandinho, who’d stepped up to block / foul him.
I think Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney were both fine on the day. Playing against Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez is not an easy task. They each got beat a time or two, but they also got the better of their man a few times. That’s just how it’s going to go against that kind of opposition.
I’m a bit miffed that Tierney played the entire match. His recent absence highlighted how important he is to Mikel Arteta’s tactical setup, and he’s just coming back from injury. He looked rusty and a bit slow. It’s impossible for me to say whether that’s down to him not being fully healthy, a lack of match fitness, or missing sharpness. I guess we just have to trust the club to do what’s best, but given how Thomas Partey was rushed back and reinjured in November, I’m wary.
I would also have liked to see Bukayo Saka get a rest today. He’s played the most minutes for Arsenal this season of anyone save Granit Xhaka, and he’s absolutely, 100% Arsenal’s best and most important player. Again, the club probably knows his fitness levels and recovery ability better than I do, but man, they cannot afford to lose him. I was happy Emile Smith Rowe got a rest today. He needed it.
Bottom line from today: it’s tough to be disappointed about not getting anything when you weren’t expecting anything to begin with. Sometimes the other guys are just better than you. Arsenal gave themselves a chance to get something but couldn’t manage it. On to the next one.