That was a long time coming. Arsenal beat Manchester City 1-0 at the Emirates to move into a tie atop the Premier League table with that other London club heading into the international break. It had been 12 consecutive league defeats and no wins in 15 tries for the Gunners against Manchester City. No more. Arsenal have exorcised that particular demon.
Arsenal beat beat Manchester City. So often when City lose in the Premier League (and that doesn’t happen often), it’s on a sucker-punch goal, against the run of play in a match City dominated. Not today. Arsenal squared them up, suffocated the life out of their attack, and beat them. The Gunners were the better team on the day. Manchester City looked listless, particularly in the second half.
Arsenal held City to four shots, only one on goal, their lowest total ever in a match under Pep Guardiola. Two of those shots came in the opening five minutes. They added a paltry 0.11 xG the rest of the match. Only Wolves (twice) have had fewer shots in a game so far this season. Mikel Arteta out-coached Pep Guardiola and Arsenal outplayed Manchester City.
The Gunners were maybe a bit lucky to escape the opening minutes at evens on the scoreboard. Arsenal’s passing, particularly in the defensive third, was loose to start the game, and David Raya looked like he wasn’t on the same page as his teammates, giving the ball away cheaply several times. Nathan Ake put a golden opportunity over the bar, probably influenced by Raya coming off his line quickly. To his credit, Raya’s passing was excellent as the match progressed, and he was in full command of his area on balls crossed in the air and corner kicks.
Once Arsenal settled down, they took control of the game. William Saliba and Gabriel rendered Erling Haaland a complete non-factor. They are the best centerback duo in the Premier League, better than whoever Manchester City trot out in any particular match. Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko were excellent, too. White was tireless, storming up and down the right side all match. Zinchenko was efficient with the ball, not giving it away as he had in recent matches, and more than held his own defensively.
The midfield trio of Declan Rice, Martin Ødegaard, and Jorginho were superb. They controlled the middle of the pitch and were the main reason Arsenal were able to render City impotent. Somehow Declan Rice raised his level again — he’s worth every penny Arsenal spent to acquire him and more. Ødegaard’s work off the ball was tremendous. He shouldered an increased defensive load and additional responsibilities today. Jorginho on-ball ability, ball retention, and incisive passing were a big part of why the Gunners were able to dictate the tempo of the match. Like Zinchenko, Jorginho is always a question mark defensively, and today, he (and his teammates) did enough to hide / shield his defensive shortcomings.
Gabriel Jesus had one heck of a game. He worked incredibly hard off the ball and was often isolated when he was on it. He held up the play, retained possession, and brought his teammates into the game. Jesus, along with a few other Arsenal players, could have done more with the ball on a few promising moves in the City box, but you have to give credit to City’s defense, too. There is a reason they’re the best team in the Premier League. They defend really well. Regardless, Arsenal are a different team when Gabriel Jesus is on his game. He is a dynamic player that links up the play and is always a threat to beat his defender on the dribble to unbalance the opposition.
There were two negatives on the day for the Gunners. First, Leandro Trossard had to come off at halftime due to injury. It seems as if Trossard wasn’t 100% to begin with — he had a quiet half. Fortunately, it worked out because Gabriel Martinelli, who replaced him, was a livewire. Second, it was painfully clear today that Eddie Nketiah is not at the same level as the rest of the starting XI. He works hard and I like him as an impact sub, but he doesn’t have the requisite quality. There were multiple occasions today where his teammates turned to remonstrate at him for not moving with them and being where he was supposed to be in the defensive structure.
To his credit, Nketiah did enough to get Arsenal into the latter stages of the match when their substitutes could make a difference. And did they ever. As I said, Gabriel Martinelli was a game-changer. His energy, dribbling and pace forced the Manchester City defense back and his attacking threat opened up space. The other substitutes, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Thomas Partey, and Kai Havertz, all touched the ball on the Arsenal goal. That’s a formidable and physical trio to bring on against a tired team.
Thomas Partey played the ball long. Takehiro Tomiyasu, who was on the edge of the Manchester City area for some reason, nodded it down for Kai Havertz. Havertz laid it back to Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian’s shot, which he curled towards the far post, caromed off Nathan Ake’s face and in at the near post.
For those of you keeping track at home, that’s Kai Havertz with the assist on Arsenal’s biggest goal of the season and Mikel Arteta’s substitutes made the difference. Take that, narrative.
Arsenal did Michael Oliver a massive favor by winning the match, too. They shifted the focus off his inexplicable decision not to send off Mateo Kovacic, either with a straight red for his challenge on Martin Ødegaard or with a second yellow for what looked to be a textbook cautionable tackle on Declan Rice minutes later. Manchester City should have been down to 10-men. That was the broad consensus. I’ve not seen anybody, on TV or online, saying Michael Oliver got it right. I’ve never been happier to not feel compelled to dwell on a refereeing decision, as egregious as Kovacic staying on the pitch was.
The win feels like the payoff for the “struggles” and “growing pains” Arsenal have been going through to start the season. Mikel Arteta wanted his side to be better at controlling games and be less open throughout the match, even if it costs them a bit of attacking flair. Today’s performance is why. It’s almost as if his changes were specifically targeted towards winning this particular game.
I’m on cloud nine. I’m sure y’all are as well. There was a lot of (perhaps justifiable) angst to open the season because Arsenal didn’t look right. That all evaporated today. I’d still make Manchester City favorites to win the Premier League, but Arsenal showed everyone that the Champions aren’t invincible. Technically, Wolves showed they weren’t Invincible, too. At some point, Manchester City aren’t going to win the league. Why can’t it be Arsenal that steps up?