In a season where Arsenal have consistently defied the narrative and flipped the script, the expected story-line seems to have finally caught up with them. Manchester City claimed control of the Premier League title race with a 4-1 win over the Gunners, just as a team that cost twice as much to assemble should have done.
As Graeme Le Saux said, Manchester City don’t have to compromise anywhere, they can get whoever they want in the transfer market. Look no further than the replacements in tonight’s Starting XI compared to the previous tilt between the sides. Manchester City replaced Nathan Ake with Kyle Walker, a starter for the England national team. Arsenal replaced William Saliba with Rob Holding, a Premier League average (at best) player.
For a time this season, Arsenal were playing every bit as good of football as Manchester City — the underlying numbers showed it. But Arsenal have been slipping since at least the last international break and City have been getting better since February. City are the best team in the Premier League, and they showed it on their home ground this evening. There is no shame in losing to a better team, especially at their stadium.
To come out ahead of Manchester City, in a match or in a season, a team has to be perfect or nearly perfect. That’s not a great indicator of the overall health and future of the Premier League, but that’s a different conversation for another time. Arsenal were far from perfect this evening. As has been the case during the Gunner’s wobbling skid, they made simple mistakes and were punished for it.
On the first goal, Thomas Partey loses Kevin de Bruyne through the midfield. He gets mesmerized by the ball, takes a step towards Erling Haaland, and that was all it took. Aaron Ramsdale probably also shouldn’t be getting beaten at his near post from 20 yards out with an unobstructed view of the shot. That goal was the only blemish on an otherwise incredible performance from Ramsdale. Without his heroics, the scoreline could have been even uglier. He stopped Haaland time and again, including on breakaways.
There’s not much to be said about the second goal. John Stones looked offside from every camera angle except the one used to make the VAR decision. Even the in-studio personalities were suggesting that it may have been a VAR mistake to award the goal. The PGMOL have since confirmed that the goal was onside, for whatever that’s worth (not even the paper it’s printed on, in my humble opinion). Additionally, Stones was also onside only because Ben White’s position behind the Arsenal line was being, let’s say, assisted by a shove from a Manchester City defender, a fact that seems to have escaped notice. Not that it really mattered in the end.
Manchester City got a third goal off a dreadful Martin Ødegaard giveaway in midfield. He completely misplaced a pass for Thomas Partey that let City break at the Arsenal defense. Partey looked oddly lame in his attempt to track back on the move, too. It’s pretty clear at this point that Partey is not close to 100%. Whether it’s not having William Saliba behind him, that he’s carrying some kind of injury, mental exhaustion, or something else, Partey is a fraction of the player he was earlier in the season.
The same can be said of Gabriel Jesus — he’s not playing at the level he was before his injury. That’s to be expected. Surgery and a long layoff will do that to your form and fitness. I’m sure he worked extremely hard to get back and be available when he did, but he’s just not as good as he was pre-World Cup. Arsenal haven’t won a game since Mikel Arteta dropped Leandro Trossard to reinsert Gabriel Jesus into the lineup. I’m not sure how much of a difference not making that change would have made in any of the matches up to and including this one against Manchester City.
Rob Holding scored an objectively funny goal to pull one back for Arsenal, a fantastic, curling shot into the corner. Erling Haaland benefited from a fortuitous bounce to score an “oh by the way” fourth for Manchester City in second half added time.
There were other things that didn’t go Arsenal’s way, too. Ruben Dias only saw yellow for kicking out at Ben White in a way that most Gooners are (rightly) convinced would have gotten Granit Xhaka sent off. Arsenal weren’t awarded a penalty for Erling Haaland moving his arm, which was at his side, towards the ball to block a shot in a way that had both Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux calling for one to be given.
None of those things would have made much of a difference in result today, beyond making the scoreline a bit more flattering to Arsenal. Manchester City don’t need any help. (So hey, powers that be, can we stop giving it to them? Thanks.) Arsenal are the second-best team in the Premier League, and it looks as if the best team is going to win the title.
There was a chance that City’s lethargic start might have given the Gunners the gap needed to hold them off down the stretch in the title chase. Sadly, the Gunners frittered that away in drawing against West Ham and Southampton, and a bit against Liverpool too, although that particular result wasn’t as damaging even though it points dropped from a winning position. The Premier League season is a long, exhausting grind, and it seems to have finally ground down the youngest squad in the division.
It’s not over, over for Arsenal this year. Mikel Arteta needs to find a way to regroup his squad and win the remaining games. It’s not likely that Manchester City will slip, but if they do, it would be a shame if the Gunners weren’t in position to take advantage.
Regardless, in the likely event the unlikely doesn’t happen, the future is bright for Arsenal. Brighton’s loss means that the Gunners have clinched a spot in the Champions League next season. If you had told any Arsenal supporter in August that the Gunners were back in the CL in 2023-24, they be thrilled.
Speaking of next season, maybe Arsenal will be fully fit against Manchester City for at least one of the contests. This season, it was Thomas Partey, Gabriel Jesus, and Ben White out for one, and William Saliba, who apparently is one of Arsenal’s most important players, out for the other. The Gunners best XI can hang with City, but when the depth is tested, the squad with near-infinite resources to pad out the roster with £40-50M backups at every position understandably comes out on top.
Come next August, watch out Manchester City and everyone else. The youngest starting XI this season will be back a year older, wiser, and better. The Gunners will add talent and depth in the summer transfer window. And as I said, the Premier League ain’t over yet. I will cling to hope as long as it mathematically exists.