LONDON — In the fourth minute of this tense, intriguing contest that ended in such stunning bedlam, David Raya miscued a pass straight to the opposition, not for the first time this week. From the resulting corner, Declan Rice did just enough on the line to keep a Josko Gvardiol flick from goal, Nathan Ake hooking just wide in the resulting tumult.
You could sense the way this contest was heading. Arsenal had worked themselves up into a lather for their biggest test of the season. Their eagerness would be their undoing as City prayed on the errors that would inevitably come. Instead, this team delivered a performance of such authority and composure that the only reaction Erling Haaland could muster was to rage at the final whistle.
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It was the nearest he had got to the action in some time. For just the second time in his Premier League career, world football’s most devastating striker went shotless. A near miss when Raya flapped at a cross from the left was about as close as he came. He was not alone in getting no change from a side who came into Sunday’s game without a top flight clean sheet at the Emirates Stadium this season.
City would end this game with four shots, the fewest they have registered in a Premier League game under Pep Guardiola. This season only Wolverhampton Wanderers have a lower tally in any top flight match. As you might have noted, two of those efforts came in the early flushes of the contest. For 85 minutes plus added time City had two shots, both falling to Julian Alvarez, worth a combined 0.16 xG. From the 58th minute, nowt. That was the sum total of 100 touches in the final third, 49 completed passes and all sorts of ducking and weaving.
Arsenal’s defense gave no quarter as they put themselves in position to claim their first league win over the champions since December 2015.
“The love for defending that we need was in every player,” said a jubilant Arteta. With Phil Foden and Alvarez drifting infield, Pep Guardiola had been hoping to overwhelm the Gunners in central areas. Instead, they crashed into a Declan Rice-shaped wall. This was the proto £105-million-performance on the biggest stage. The England international was the gravitational force in the middle of the field. The ball just seemed to find him, no matter what City wanted.
Go over or around Rice and it was no easier a task. Gabriel Magalhaes has not met a 50-50 that he will not thunder his way through. It is the perfect blend for the serenity of William Saliba. When he rose above Haaland in the first minute the Emirates roared. He seemed utterly indifferent. Even on nine toes — he has withdrawn from the France squad to deal with an ongoing but minor issue — he had the match at his feet.
“You can not give anything against this team and they can still earn because they are top quality,” Arteta added. “But we discussed a lot about that. It’s stressful because they change it constantly and you have to adapt and they are threatening you in different areas.
“You have to be really, really aware of what they’re doing to try to match it up and you have to be patient in certain situations.”
That patience could on occasion infuriate the Emirates Stadium. After that fretful early pass and a moment when Alvarez blocked his clearance, nearly deflecting the ball into the net, Raya’s willingness to dwell on possession brought murmurs from the crowd. The Brentford loanee, winner of three straight against City, was not blown off course.
“It’s my fault, all my fault,” said Arteta. “[The crowd] can boo me. I asked him to do that. Especially against this team, you start to do other things and you get in big, big, big trouble. He was excellent, the way he dominated his box, the way he came up for crosses in set pieces.
“He’s got big ones. The crowd go like this, other players start to kick balls everywhere. I said to him make sure you don’t do it. He didn’t do it and at the end he got rewarded.”
For all Arsenal’s excellence at the back, they hardly set this contest alight. When City’s paltry shot return was put to Guardiola, he was soon asking how many his opponent had had. Twelve but at a combined 0.41 xG, Ederson was having to deliver heroics between the sticks.
“It is what it is,” said the City boss, “It was a tight game. In football it happens. They did everything, but football at this level, the details, margins and quality are the difference.”
Given all their quality at the other end it was perhaps appropriate that an Arsenal defender would provide the outstanding moment that swung the contest the hosts’ way. Spotting a gap outside the penalty area, Takehiro Tomiyasu, introduced to quell the threat of substitute Jeremy Doku, charged forward, flicking on Thomas Partey’s long pass into the feet of Kai Havertz. With his back to goal, the German teed up Gabriel Martinelli, whose shot deflected wickedly off Nathan Ake and beyond Ederson.
With 10 minutes to go including added time, the siege on the Arsenal goal seemed inevitable. It never came, Arteta’s players holding the “best team in the world” at arms length. City did not even have a sniff. This team might never have produced a better defensive performance.