Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Why ‘small margins’ could favor Arsenal in bid to snap Manchester City losing streak in Premier League

A place in Premier League history awaits for Mikel Arteta, one he will be desperate to avoid at all costs. Arsenal have lost their last 12 meetings with Manchester City in this competition. One more and they will rank alongside Wigan Athletic (vs. Manchester United between 2005 and 2011) and West Bromwich Albion (vs. Manchester City between 2012 and 2018) as the most consistently defeated opponent in the top flight.

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For reasons beyond just his previous association with Pep Guardiola, Arteta’s tenure at has in some ways been defined against City. It was as he watched a meek team with diffident support get brushed aside in a 3-0 loss to City, a few hours before the Arsenal hierarchy would formally offer him the job, that he concluded that “the tree is going to shake.” The FA Cup semifinal win a half season later in the summer of 2020 offered hope of a brighter future that took several years to fully emerge. Even now though, his former boss keeps getting one over on Arteta.

The results may feel repetitive, even the scorelines have a familiar ring with City generally finding the net three or more times, the full time whistle inviting suggestions of an unbridgeable gulf between these two clubs. It would, though, be grossly over simplistic to imply that nothing has changed in Manchester City’s view of Arsenal since they last lost to a Mesut Ozil-inspired opponent in late 2015. 

Not for nothing did Guardiola feel compelled to say “Arsenal are back” in his pre-match press conference. They have proven as much in each of their last two meetings at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners have run the champions close indeed, a tough red card for Gabriel on New Year’s Day 2022 and a couple of errors at the back the following year ultimately handing victory to City. On both occasions, they could conclude they had played with the authority and verve to truly test the champions.

“They are so aggressive, they have a clear pattern and are a really good team,” said Guardiola, reflecting on the games where his Premier League winning streak was nearly ended. “They fought to be champions last season, they could not do it. This season they are there again.”

If there is a template for Arsenal beating City when it really matters its kernel might exist in the last meeting on north London soil. A technically assured midfield missing more robust options outpossessed their visitors, won the ball in dangerous positions and, for the first time in Arteta’s tenure, had the majority of the game’s shots. If Eddie Nketiah had done more with his four efforts than Erling Haaland did with his three, what might have been…

Then of course there is the Community Shield. In the celebratory haze of a last minute equalizer and penalty shootout win, Aaron Ramsdale spoke of a “mental block” that had been erased. Whether that really holds in a truly competitive environment remains an open question until these two face off on Sunday. Arteta seemed as keen as any Community Shield skeptic to play down the impact of England’s curtain raising friendly.

Instead he found himself dwelling on events back in February when City swung a tight game in the final 20 minutes thanks to goals from Jack Grealish and Haaland. That has the feel of the one that got away for Arteta, no wonder when the swing of an Arsenal victory on that day could ultimately have been the difference between top spot and second. Asked about other games, he would bring it up unprompted, looking back on it in more detail. His regret extends beyond a Takehiro Tomiyasu miss-kick, a Gabriel clearance straight to an opponent.

“When we played them here in many, many, many, many moments we were much better than them but we ended up giving the game away,” Arteta said. “They weren’t mistakes, there were actions as well. We had three huge, clear-cut chances against them before they score the second goal and we didn’t manage to score. We got punished by giving the ball away in the wrong area after regaining it straight away. These are the moments, small margins in football define who wins in big matches.”

Those small margins can emerge even before a ball is kicked. When Arsenal’s title dreams were crushed at the Etihad Stadium, it was the absence of William Saliba that cost them dearly. Though there are issues affecting Arteta’s selection this time — Gabriel Martinelli is not expected to have overcome a hamstring issue while Bukayo Saka is merely “in contention” after limping out of the defeat to Lens on Tuesday — it may be that the selection issues are more keenly felt by Guardiola. City, who so often seem to round out their numbers before the biggest games of the season, will have to do without the suspended Rodri and long-term absentee Kevin De Bruyne. John Stones has also fallen just short in his bid to recover fitness.

Add to them the losses of the summer, most notably Ilkay Gundogan, and City find themselves without the bruising double pivot that was so dominant in that match. Indeed, if any side looks like it should win the 50:50 duels in midfield, it is the one that could field the returning Thomas Partey next to Declan Rice. 

“Every big game you need the players to stand up and make it count,” said Arteta. “Duels are a big part of that game. I think we do have enough physicality in the back line to deal with those players. You have to prove it in every action on Sunday.”

Every action indeed. Arsenal discovered to their peril last time this game was played that even one or two moments that are subpar can swing a contest and indeed a title race. Avoid such errors on Sunday and there is at least a chance.

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