Arsenal’s best performance of the season, perhaps of many seasons, ended with no reward as Rodri’s stoppage time winner earned Manchester City yet another win over the Gunners.
Simply not conceding in the opening exchanges was progress for Arsenal, so often City’s whipping boys, and yet this was so much more than that. But without their manager Mikel Arteta, sidelined with COVID-19, Arsenal put in a performance of maturity, collective spirit and youthful vigor for 85 of the 90 minutes. Bukayo Saka’s first half goal gave the hosts a lead they thoroughly deserved. It might have been more, with Martin Odegaard denied a penalty early on and Gabriel Martinelli continually going close.
The issue was rather what happened in those other five minutes, a period when Arsenal’s heads briefly were thoroughly gone. First Granit Xhaka gave away a reckless penalty then Martinelli then missed an open goal and finally Gabriel received a second yellow moments after being booked for scuffing up the spot ahead of Riyad Mahrez’s penalty equalizer.
Arsenal had held out manfully until the third minute of stoppage time, Aymeric Laporte’s shot deflecting off Ben White into Rodri’s path as he poked home a winner that extends City’s lead at the top of the Premier League table to double digits. It might have been so different.
Good outweighs the bad for Arsenal
From the game’s first passage Arsenal fizzed with intensity. When they have beaten City, Liverpool and Chelsea in past matches over recent years it has been in passive fashion: nicking one goal and holding on for dear life, surviving through a combination of luck, goalkeeping excellence and inept finishing. They have been the best version of a dramatically inferior team. Not for the first hour. Arsenal were aggressive, willing to chase the ball high up the pitch and trust in Ben White and Gabriel to mop up in behind.
When the ball came back to them they burst up the pitch swiftly and in numbers. One fizzing pass by Aaron Ramsdale could unlock the space in behind City’s fullbacks, Nathan Ake and Joao Cancelo’s sleep tonight will surely be dogged by nightmares of Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. A brilliant touch by the latter in the 10th minute sent Arsenal charging into the penalty area. Alexandre Lacazette made the extra pass and Martin Odegaard was bearing down on goal.
Ederson stuck out a leg. Odegaard went down. Stuart Attwell was unmoved. Replays suggested that City’s goalkeeper may have made contact with his opponent before the ball but it was the sort of marginal decision that VAR is loath to overrule.
At the other end City had flashes of opportunities, an unmarked Ruben Dias flicking wide of goal when Ramsdale was in no mans land, but the best were coming to the hosts. For just the 10th time in the last 172 Premier League games Pep Guardiola’s side failed to register a shot on target in the first half. The explanation was simple. Gabriel, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and the outstanding Thomas Partey were winning all their individual duels.
When White did on the half hour mark Arsenal burst out of the traps. Xhaka got the ball upfield quickly before it was worked to Kieran Tierney. Saka darted infield, Lacazette setting the screen for him that gave him daylight to get clear of Nathan Ake, firing low into the bottom corner.
Arsenal were rampant, Martinelli a tyro down the left. Twice in the first half he went close to doubling the lead, his single-minded drive towards goal typifying the best of this team. He would keep fighting to get the ball, poking a shot just wide of Ederson’s far post when Cancelo seemed to have possession. The second half was no less intense. Arsenal were the better team.
All they needed to do was keep their heads. It was the one thing they failed to do. It was grimly familiar that it proved to be Xhaka’s head that went first, having done well to force Bernardo Silva to go down softly he decided to grab a handful of light blue shirt for no reason whatsoever. Arsenal fans might ask why VAR Jarred Gillet told Attwell to check that and not the Odegaard incident. They should ask why a veteran is still making the same errors of discipline and composure that have been a defining feature of five and a half years in north London.
Xhaka had been excellent in so many little ways. But in the big moment he cost them. A leader for this team he set the tone for a collapse in discipline that saw Gabriel pick up a yellow card for attempting to scuff up the penalty spot. It did not stop Mahrez scoring but meant the Brazilian had no room for a clumsy foul on Gabriel Jesus.
Though their bubble may have been burst late on the 10 men defended their point in exceptional fashion. Substitute Rob Holding excels with his back to the wall. Xhaka seemed to be in the way of every attempted penalty box entry. Ramsdale did not have a save to make until the 93rd minute. But it was just too much to ask that the ball might not break favorably for City at one stage. Arsenal ought not to forget all the good work that has gone unrewarded. This was as good as they have been in some time.
City’s curious defense
City may have got the three point that give them a commanding lead at the top of the table but for much of this match Guardiola looked far from pleased. His side were not at their best offensively but perhaps the greater cause for concern — and this is merely tinkering around the margins — is their curious defensive positioning which Arsenal exploited more than once.
In part this may have been a more individual issue than a systemic one. When Cancelo plays at left back and Kyle Walker on the opposite side, there looks to be balance in and out of possession. City’s center backs are able to rebalance to reflect Cancelo’s tendency to move infield.
Yet when one part was taken out City, looked all at sea. Ake and Laporte were so close together that they seemed to be marking each other. That was exploited most notably on Saka’s goal and through Arsenal’s ability to quickly shift play out the left where Kieran Tierney had space to attack. Nine times out of 10 these issues do not rear their head but Guardiola will be acutely aware that the moments where it matters are usually at the business end of the season.
Add to the mix what might generously be termed cavalier defending by Laporte and this was a concerning day for Guardiola. The Frenchman nearly scored an own goal when he flicked a header over Ederson, Martinelli should have punished the indiscretion when Ake’s goal line clearance teed him up for a near open goal. He hit the post yet Laporte seemed determined to give him further chances, flicking a lazy pass backwards soon after.
Perhaps this was a particularly egregious one off but, when there is so little left to hone in City’s relentless machine, Guardiola will surely be closely investigating.