Arsenal bowed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat against Manchester City at the Etihad. Mikel Arteta started a heavily rotated side against a mostly first-choice XI from Pep Guardiola, and for most of the game, the Gunners played ‘em even or were the better team. If Manchester City go on to win the FA Cup this season, they’ll finally have won the competition half as many times as Arsenal.
The difference in today’s match came when Thomas Partey was subbed off for Sambi Lokonga. Partey felt some rib discomfort and was taken off as a precaution. Mikel Arteta said the midfielder will have a scan to check for an injury. Arsenal’s play fell off significantly with the change, and it took some time for them to find a new rhythm. Unfortunately, during that adjustment period, Manchester City scored the decisive goal, and Lokonga was partly (mostly?) to blame.
Bukayo Saka slid wide to help Takehiro Tomiyasu double-team Jack Grealish. Saka’s movement left space open in the middle. Nathan Ake moved into the space from deep, and Lokonga, who was closer to the Arsenal goal than Ake to begin with, stood still instead of moving to him. Grealish slipped a pass between the two Arsenal defenders into that vacant space, and Ake scored.
Sambi does some good things on the ball. He pinged a lovely, inch-perfect switch-the-play pass later in the half. But he hasn’t developed the off-ball, defensive awareness and focus required to play in Mikel Arteta’s system. Later in the match when Arsenal were pressuring in the middle third, Sambi drifted aimlessly back towards the defensive line, half-heartedly tracking a run. Martin Ødegaard pointed to the space (and presumably yelled something, too) he needed Sambi to step up to cover, but the midfielder didn’t get there. The City defender had a free pass to an open teammate in the area, and Ødegaard turned around, arms raised in frustration at Lokonga.
The play of a backup, substitute midfielder aside, there were plenty of positives for Arsenal to take from today’s match. The biggest one is that there is no reason to be scared, at all, of this Manchester City side. Arsenal are at least every bit as good as they are. That doesn’t mean that City aren’t good. They’re a really good team. So are Arsenal. And the Gunners can go toe-to-toe, strength-against-strength with them.
Erling Haaland did very little, especially against the preferred CB pairing of Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba in the second half. They matched his physicality, which is important because Haaland clutches and grabs a lot in the battles. If the shoe were on the other foot, i.e. a defender grabbing Haaland as frequently as he grabs defenders, he would absolutely be cautioned after the second or third time. Case in point: Rob Holding was cautioned in the first half.
The Arsenal left flank consistently got around the right side of the Manchester City defense. Whether it was Kieran Tierney and Leandro Trossard on Rico Lewis or Alex Zinchenko and Gabriel Martinelli against Kyle Walker, the Gunners clearly got the better of the matchups. Pep Guardiola will need to specifically address that for the Premier League contests or Arsenal are going to score down that wing. Trossard played a really good game, as well as anybody wearing red, and had two good chances to score that required really good saves.
A fresh Martin Ødegaard dictated the pace for the 15 or so minutes he was on the pitch. His regular partnership with Bukayo Saka, who didn’t have his best game (probably b/c Fabio Vieira ain’t MØ), will be tough for the right side of the Manchester City defense.
Matt Turner was solid all match. He might have done better on the Manchester City goal, but the shot looked to take a deflection that helped it bend around him into the corner. Turner was particularly quick off his line to cut out long balls and potential breaks. Aaron Ramsdale will need to do the same.
Speaking of deflections, football is a funny game. Manchester City scored a goal on a deflection that helped take the ball around Matt Turner. Arsenal nearly scored through Eddie Nketiah but for a stretching lunge from Ruben Dias that just got enough of a touch to take it away from the striker. On another night, those deflections are flipped and Arsenal come out on top. I’ll happily take the bounces in the Premier League contests.
If you couldn’t tell, I have no problem with how Arsenal went out of the FA Cup today. They acquitted themselves well. I don’t think it’s fair to say the Gunners didn’t try to win today — they did and the players do every time they set foot on a pitch. But if you look at the starting lineups and substitutions, Manchester City were definitely trying harder to win. And as I said, Arsenal were even with or better than City on the evening. Good enough for me.